Yesterday a Government formed agency, albeit one that Ministers claim is a ‘business led membership council’ published its third version of a guidance document under the short title of Site Operating Procedures or the slightly longer title of Construction Sector – Site Operating Procedures Protecting Your Workforce During Coronavirus (Covid-19). The agency is called the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and amongst other factors they explain on their website that “The construction sector is massive, representing 8% of GDP and 10% of employment. It is 6 times larger than the automotive industry. Every year £150 billion is invested through the public and private sectors – creating the foundations for UK growth and playing a key role in achieving our clients’ wider social and environmental objectives.” It is understandable in these terms why the construction industry is treated so importantly by the Government. The new version of the document which is now 6 pages long has grown by 2 pages from the first edition and which contains a much more detailed response to the challenge of how builders should try to work in settings where a 2m gap between workers cannot be achieved. The first version was published on 23rd March but unfortunately later on the same day, Boris Johnson used a TV broadcast to call for all people to work from home and where that was not possible, to close down all but the most critical businesses. Two days later John McDonnell spoke in the House of Commons to reinforce what had been stated “The Prime Minister said that all businesses should close down unless they have an essential role to play in the fight against the coronavirus, or unless the business can continue to operate with staff working from home. Let us be clear: construction sites should be closed down, unless they are building health facilities. They should close now. They are putting lives at risk by operating still.” However rather disturbingly a day later, Nadhim Zahawi who according to the CLC website is one of their two Co-Chairs tweeted:
For sectors like #construction and #manufacturing, its not always possible for employees to work from home. Constuction work should continue in a way that follows guidance from @PHE_uk including on social distancing & handwashing.
Perhaps someone from within the manufacturing or construction industry (such as a member of the CLC) could have explained to their colleague Zahawi that in fact all meaningful work from their industries takes place a long way from workers home and so his first sentence made no sense at all and that following on from Johnsons broadcast the need for such work to end was clear. Indeed that explains why a number of building companies closed down at the end of that week. So 10 days later on the 2nd of April an updated version of the document was published. It is no longer available as it was withdrawn within a day but the website explains that “In response to feedback, the Site Operating Procedures Version 2 has now been published to include: Clarification that where it is not possible or safe for workers to distance themselves from each other by 2 metres then work should not be carried out.” However this approach created a number of concerns from some parts of the industry as explained in an online construction news piece published by The Construction Index. They explain “The Construction Leadership Council, an unelected body of ministerial appointees, had failed to carry genuine industry leaders with it and was forced into a speedy climb down. Any tightening of the rules for the construction industry was too much for certain important people to tolerate, it seems. While it has not yet emerged who it was that forced the CLC into a climb-down, two or three hours after putting Version 2 online, the CLC had withdrawn it.”
Now of course alongside the building industry there are a number of associated industries that are also required to work on building sites from time to time or which themselves have similar challenges to deal with in some of their work. This includes the work of the business I am part of which is part of the Audio Visual industry. A classic example is the need for two people to stand on the same scaffolding tower to fit a projector or for a touch screen to be fitted into a classroom, given that it requires two people to fit it and it is less than 2m long. However our industry is a very small one compared to the construction industry which perhaps explains why there is much less information available to us and why our industry is not informed regarding such matters in any meaningful way. However we have to pay attention to these matters for very obvious reasons.
The CLC agency was set up by Nick Boles who succeeded Matthew Hancock as the Minister for Skills in 2014. In October 2015 Boles chaired the first meeting with the following reference in the minutes: “Nick Boles welcomed members to the first meeting of the renewed Construction Leadership Council (CLC). He felt that the smaller, senior business led membership council was better placed to address key issues facing the industry.” Although the CLC has met or held conference calls on average 6 times a year since then, there have been a limited number of meetings involving Ministers. Nick Boles attended the first two meetings, Jesse Norman attended one meeting in Nov 2016, Lord David Prior attended three in 2017 and one of his colleagues, Lord Henley attended one at the end of 2017, Richard Harrington attended one in July 2018 and since then there has been no Ministers attending although the Civil Service has attended all of the meetings, the last of which took place in in September 2019 with a proposal that the next meeting would take place in the BEIS Department on 7th November 2019. It would appear that this did not happen. Perhaps in due course Nadhim Zahawi will get a chance to meet with the members of the group and find out more about the industry which needs a clear sense of how to respond to the C-19 challenge.