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COVID fallout could lead to a harsh winter for construction

Construction experts claim COVID continues to cast a dark shadow on the industry – and say the knock-on effects of the pandemic will continue to be felt long after the initial summer celebrations are over.

Construction output remains above its February 2020 level, despite a 0.8% fall in May 2021. However, there are still many risks currently faced by the industry, including the twin perils of a skills shortage and long COVID. They could both have a devastating impact on a volatile industry this winter.

Actuate UK, the alliance of leading UK building engineering services, warns the sector to be vigilant and follow good practice guidance, developed over the last year, to prevent long lasting impacts on businesses.

The demand for construction projects has shown little sign of slowing. Construction was one of the few industries which continued operating during lockdowns, due to its importance in building and maintaining infrastructure of national importance, for example, the Nightingale hospitals.

Actuate UK, highlights new data from a YouGov survey, which raises questions about the ability of the UK construction sector to return to pre-pandemic activity levels.The alliance says businesses and government should start planning nowto avoid winter disruption.

According to the poll, in the year up to May 2021, across all members of staff, small to medium-sized construction firms each lost an average of 29 days every month from staff absent from work.

This figure excluded people on furlough – and Actuate UK says the situation will only get worse as businesses go under or are forced to operate on much-reduced capacity. Moreover, key projects may be delayed or come to a costly halt.

Fiona Hodgson, chief executive of Actuate UK member SNIPEF, said: “As the restrictions ease, Actuate UK urges industry to strike a balance when considering the health of its workers and the need to move the economy forward.

“This survey gives us grave concern about the long-term effects of COVID on our industry. Building services are the lifeblood of all major construction projects, with heating, lighting, ventilation and digital infrastructure essential to successful project delivery.

“Yet we continue to hear from members there are simply not enough skilled installers to meet current demand. With fewer apprentices being recruited during the pandemic this has exacerbated the issue and we are deeply concerned this will impact on Government targets and future projects.”

The government is currently looking at construction to lead the post-pandemic recovery, funding new infrastructure projects such as the New Hospitals Programme in Englandand the electrification of the UK’s roadand rail networks.

However, Actuate UK says that with a significantly reduced workforce, it won’t be possible to keep pace with demand – and key projects could suffer as a result.

Andrew Eldred, of Actuate UK and ECA’s director of skills and employment said: “We’re hearing first-hand accounts of construction firms being unable to recruit skilled staff, despite full order books. And this is only the start.

“The pandemic has had repercussions for training; the number of new entrants coming into the workforce has declined. The difficulties of gaining practical experience, along with reduced numbers starting apprenticeships has taken its toll.”

The spectre of long COVID throws another shadow on the horizon, with recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that 385,000 people in the UK have lived with symptoms for a year or more.

Although vaccination can help guard against the initial impact of COVID itself, sufferers can experience brain fog and fatigue caused by long COVID, preventing them from returning to work.

Andrew added: “While life may return to ‘the new normal’ for many in the coming weeks and months, for others, the long-term impact of the pandemic will remain a very real barrier to work.

“The knock-on consequences of this and the skills shortage could be all too real for individuals, businesses and the economic recovery itself, so it’s vital that we factor in contingency plans and take steps to protect our workforce.”

You can read up to date Guidance for COVID safe practices from members of Actuate UK on the website (https://www.actuateuk.org.uk/resources/) and the latest Construction Leadership Council’s Site Operating Procedure Guidance is available on their website (https://www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/news/site-operating-procedures-statement/).

19 July 2021

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