During the peak, construction sites in England kept going while senior management stayed home. Now, men in construction have the highest COVID-19 death rate, according to the ONS. Who will be held accountable? Christine Murray reports
Construction worker. Photo: World Bank Photo Collection
Christine Murray is Editor-in-Chief of The Developer and Director of the Festival of Place
On 11 May, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that men working in construction had the highest rate of deaths involving COVID-19 leading up to 20 April, making them more likely to die than nursing assistants, care workers and ambulance drivers, in an analysis of death certificates attributed to Coronavirus. The data also revealed that skilled trades occupations, and process, plant and machine operatives had high mortality rates from COVID-19.
On the same day as the ONS figures were made public, Prime Minister Boris Johnson explicitly singled out and “actively encouraged” construction workers to return to work in an address to the nation: “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”
The ONS data confirms what campaigners had been saying for weeks. Opposition to keeping the sites open has been vocal and emotive. Campaigner David Smith, leader of a grassroots #ShutTheSites campaign, shared a video that included an interview with Steve Tombs, a professor in social policy and criminology, who describes the government’s approach as criminal negligence:
“It’s manslaughter, it’s social murder.”
In another video, critical care nurse Dave Carr begs construction workers to stay home, published by Reel News. “If they can bail out the bankers, they can bail out the construction workers,” Carr says, asking workers to lobby their unions. Meanwhile, a petition on the UK government website to close sites gained thousands of signatures.
Throughout the pandemic, guidance for construction workers has differed vastly from the government’s message to other citizens in its ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ campaign. Before the easing of lockdown restrictions, health secretary Matt Hancock warned that even outdoor exercise could be banned and the police admonished park-goers for loitering in public spaces.
However, despite growing concerns that sites were a potential source of infection, the government doubled down on initiatives to keep construction going and downgraded precautionary measures.
Pressure to return to work was compounded by the lack of government support for subcontractors on zero hours and those on freelance contracts. Many construction workers do not qualify for sick pay, let alone government help.
A respondent to a Coronavirus survey by Construction News said, “If we don’t attend there is no pay – nothing. No SSP [statutory sick pay], no 80%, nothing… It’s a terrible situation to be in with the rest of my family at home practising social distancing and me still going to work.”
On 8 April, a cross-party group of 50 MPs wrote to business secretary Alok Sharma, asking him to ban all inessential construction work. The group said building work “should be restricted to construction firms involved in supporting health, emergency services, essential post-Grenfell safety work and works essential to the public”.
On the same day the letter was made public, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, stated that construction workers were only required to observe social distancing “wherever possible”. The guidance was also changed to make face-to-face contact on-site permissible where it hadn’t been before, specifying that it should be kept to 15 minutes or less.
The safety guidance was downgraded again in May, to avoid face-to-face work “wherever possible”, meaning at the time of writing, workers can in theory be forced to work face-to-face all day long without wearing face masks.
Then there was the farce of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) withdrawing its updated site operating procedures (which enforced two-metre social distancing on construction sites) just hours after it published them on 1 April. The procedures were withdrawn after building firms advised that the guidance would force sites to close. The CLC immediately replaced these procedures with the less stringent advice it had issued on 23 March, which suggested that two-metre social distancing was just a good idea.
By the time version four of the site procedures was published, it specified that PPE should not be used on construction sites at all to prevent infection
On 15 April, the CLC updated its site procedures again, with version three advising on alternative ways of working, such as limiting the number of workers in a space where social distancing is not being observed. However version three fell short of mandating social distancing or recommending the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against virus transmission, saying it should only be used as a “last resort”.
By the time version four of the site procedures was published on 18 May, it specified that PPE should not be used on construction sites at all to prevent infection, despite the further relaxation of social distancing procedures: “Coronavirus (COVID-19) needs to be managed through social distancing, hygiene and the hierarchy of control and not through the use of PPE… Workplaces should not encourage the precautionary use of extra PPE to protect against Coronavirus.”
The removal of PPE from the guidance may have been a reaction to mounting concerns that sites were using up vital stocks at a time of international shortage, including the commonly used FFP2 and FFP3 masks. When it closed its sites on 24 March, Barratt Homes donated more than 2,300 PPE items to UK hospitals including masks, gloves, overshoes, goggles, antibacterial wipes and hand gel.