Construction work at some English and Welsh schools was continuing as Education Design and Build went to press, but with the coronavirus escalating fast, pressure was mounting on the Government to order a total close-down.
Up until March 24, the Government’s position was that people whose jobs had not already been shut down by the government measures to date should continue to work but should only be travelling to a workplace "where that work can't be done at home". Health Secretary Matt Hancock said construction workers should continue to go to work as long as they are able to remain two metres apart at all times. And Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said that construction work should continue for the “economic health” of the nation.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said all building sites in Scotland must close. However, Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s economy secretary, later said that some construction and maintenance work would continue if it was “critical to the infrastructure needs of the country”.
The British Government’s sanctioning of continuing construction work drew a sharply differing response from the construction industry, with many large and small firms feeling forced to shut down operations while others continued to build, compelled some said by contractual and payment pressures from clients.
The split approach led trade bodies to demand total clarity from Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders said: “Our members want to do the right thing, but the advice coming from government is anything but clear. I am calling on the Government to tell my members, today, whether they can continue to go on site and work. Small builders cannot work from home, but without cash grants available now, they risk seeing their livelihoods lost.”
GKR Scaffolding business development director Helen Gawor told trade magazine Construction News: "Social distancing is not possible on site. How is it possible to pass materials between people under the guidance?" She added that she was also concerned about the safety of those who would be working at height given the strain on the NHS at present."This is our defining moment in how we treat our people and keep them safe. The next generation will watch how the construction industry is treated and will decide if they want to work here.”