The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has warned that the construction sector risks being shut down if contractors fail to follow safety measures in the face of rising COVID-19 transmission rates.
Firms need to ensure they are following SOPs, introduce testing and in London support the reduction of overcrowding on the tube.
The new business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was important that “firms and tradespeople in the construction sector and its supply chain, including merchants, suppliers and product manufacturers, should continue to operate during this national lockdown”.
“You are making a hugely valued and critical contribution to our country,” he said in an open letter.
However, there are growing concerns that as transmission rates rise, public and government opinion may yet change, resulting in a COVID construction shutdown.
“It is crucial that we break the cycle of transmission in this particularly hazardous phase of the pandemic,” said BESA’s chief David Frise. “The Government is solidly behind keeping construction and its related professions working, but we must do everything we can to keep our people and the general public safe if we want to continue enjoying that support.”
The Association urged employers to take advantage of new COVID-19 testing facilities and to revise their safety procedures in light of updated guidance. It said it was crucial every effort was made to keep workers and the public safe or the government would be forced to tighten restrictions and start closing down sites.
The Association is also advising its members to carry out widespread ‘asymptomatic testing’ because one in three of those infected display no symptoms, according to health secretary Matt Hancock. Community testing is now being rolled out across the country and is particularly focused on people who are unable to work from home including those employed on construction sites and carrying out essential building services in homes and commercial properties.
Several construction firms have already used the system including McAlpine who tested 590 workers on one site and found 11 were positive but displaying no systems. BuildUK is also offering a reduced cost service for site-based testing.
BESA echoed a warning from the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) calling on contractors to review their safety arrangements in the face of the new more transmissive COVID-19 variant and to abide by the Site Operating Procedures (SOPs), which were updated this week.
CLC chair Andy Mitchell also urged firms to “critically challenge what works can genuinely not be done at home” and those travelling to sites to minimise their use of public transport.
“The industry has demonstrated that it can operate safely and responsibly, but there is absolutely no room for complacency,” said Frise. “The country is in the worst phase of the pandemic and we need to manage our way through the next few weeks very carefully.
“The minister is absolutely right to point out that construction professions, including building engineering services, are making a crucial contribution to the economic and social well-being of the country, but in order for that work to continue we have to keep everyone safe. It will only take a few ‘rogue’ sites or workers not abiding by the rules to spoil things for everyone.”
He urged BESA members and the wider building services community to review its operating procedures in light of the updated SOPs; carry out comprehensive testing and follow the guidance on face coverings and transport restrictions. Free SOP training is available online via the BESA Academy.
“Nobody should be forced to work in a situation where they feel unsafe and sub-contractors have the right to challenge site procedures if they believe they are not up to scratch,” added Frise.
Pressure on Transport London
BESA have also received an urgent message from the Secretary of State for Transport and Transport for London, indicating that there is significant pressure on the public transport network in London and the Government is looking at options for reducing the number of passengers at peak times.
If the situation does not improve and construction workers are identified as significantly contributing to overcrowding then more direct action or restrictions could be imposed.
BESA are urging members with sites in London to work with their supply chain and neighbouring sites to introduce staggered start and finish times and support workers to avoid travelling during peak times of 05:45 - 08:15 and 16:00 - 17:30 and to walk or cycle as part of their journey.
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