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England’s sites stayed open during lockdown and hundreds of construction workers died

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 

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Construction worker. Photo: World Bank Photo Collection
Construction worker. Photo: World Bank Photo Collection

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.”


“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.”


Construction worker on site. Photo: World Bank Photo Archive
Construction worker on site. Photo: World Bank Photo Archive


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.


Before the government halted its NHS testing programme on 12 March, high profile sites including the Google HQ in King’s Cross were shut down and deep cleaned after workers tested positive


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said in early April that it would issue enforcement and prohibition notices to any firms failing to follow Public Health England guidance during the lockdown, despite the fact that routine inspections had been stopped. On 20 May, it was revealed that no enforcement notices relating to Coronavirus had been issued by the HSE between 9 March and 7 May.


In addition, while the HSE specifies that reports must be made under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) after a worker’s “possible or actual exposure to”, diagnosis of, or death resulting from COVID-19, as of 13 May no cases have been reported under RIDDOR to the HSE on construction or demolition sites, a request under the Freedom of Information Act by The Developer has revealed.


Before the government halted its NHS testing programme on 12 March, high profile sites including the Google HQ site in King’s Cross and Crossrail’s Bond Street Station in London were shut down and deep cleaned after workers tested positive.


Once testing stopped, those with symptoms were instructed to self-isolate and not tested unless they presented at hospital, making the ONS data the first evidence that the COVID-19 was spreading on construction sites.


When testing was extended to construction workers after 27 April, five workers tested positive at Hinkley Point C’s nuclear power plant, which has more than 2,500 workers on site. But fears regarding the lack of social distancing at Hinkley Point C were reported as early as 24 March, when an unnamed worker contacted Somerset Live with photographs of a crowded canteen, saying, “No one is happy or feels safe.”


Construction site clusters have been reported in Singapore, several US states and in Kuala Lampur


The UK is not the only country to see clusters of cases focussed around construction sites. Singapore has linked 132 cases of COVID-19 to a single site, Kenyon/UBS, with an additional 97 linked to the West Coast Vale site and 91 to the Jovell construction site. Construction site clusters have also been reported in several US states, and in Kuala Lampur.


In an attempt to boost morale, a letter from the business secretary was distributed in March “to everyone working in the UK’s construction sector” in which Sharma extends his “heartfelt and personal thanks”.


“I salute you for the enormous efforts you are individually undertaking to support the UK economy,” Sharma adds.


Hundreds of construction workers have died thus far in service to the property industry and the economy, as the ONS figures prove. Who will be held accountable for the failure to lockdown and the safety guidance that may have cost them their lives?

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