Westminster and Scotland split over closing construction sites

 

The UK is split over whether to close non-essential construction sites as Scotland and Westminster form different policies in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis.

The move follows the Government's announcement on 23 March of some of the most far reaching curbs on personal freedom ever announced, including closing down non-essential shops and banning gatherings of more than two people.

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The Scottish Government has advised that construction sites should close and is currently developing guidance for business on how to respond, and how to confirm whether their activities are essential or non-essential.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon said: 'This morning I was specifically asked on the radio about building sites and hair salons, and my advice would be to close.

'I want to reiterate that if you run a business, and if the nature of your business makes it difficult for you or your workers to work from home or to practice safe social distancing, then you should close for the period of the efforts to combat this virus.

'If you are an employee, and your workplace is not abiding by this, I would urge you to speak to your employer and ask that they take action.'

However in England, while people were advised to only travel to work if absolutely essential, the communities secretary Robert Jenrick and minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, advised construction work should continue.

Mr Gove said: 'It will be the case that the way in which construction sites operate will alter in order to take into account this guidance, [on social distancing - staying two metres away from others].

'But it's important to recognise we need to work with the sectors and the business concerned so that the work that needs to be done in order to maintain and enhance our infrastructure can be done in order to ensure the life of the nation can continue and we maintain the economic health of the nation without compromising the health of the nation.'

Mr Jenrick Tweeted: 'Advice for the housing, construction & building maintenance industries:

  • If you can work from home, do so.
  • If you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.
  • Outside of work, remember to #StayHomeSaveLives'

Transport Network understands there has been some disgreement over this policy in London, with City Hall urging more of a shutdown.

Some London Underground lines were still packed yesterday and this morning and unions reacted with anger to the situation, which they say is endangering their members' lives.

Mike Brown MVO, London’s Transport Commissioner, confirmed that TfL and Crossrail 'will be bringing all project sites to a temporary Safe Stop unless they need to continue for operational safety reasons'.

'This means that work on all such projects will be temporarily suspended as soon as it is safe to do so. Essential maintenance of the transport network will of course continue.'

ASLEF spokesman Finn Brennan Tweeted: 'Getting lots of reports of early trains being full on the Underground. If the Government doesn't shut construction sites and pay self employment [sic], people will die.'

London suffered major transport cuts in the wake of COVID-19 concerns and a fall in passenger numbers, with 40 London Underground stations closed. Many have said these cuts have actually increased overcrowding on the services that are still operating.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the Transport for London has lost 20% of its staff due to sickness and self-isolation so 'it is simply not possible to increase the number of Tubes and buses as easily as people think'.

Mr Khan said the British Transport Police were assisting staff, but stressed the message was simple 'don't use public transport if you are not a key worker'.

Those in transport and roads are considered key workers, however there is now debate in the industry over what constitutes essential work, with some behind the scenes urging a closure of non essential sites.

The Construction Leadership Council, which brings together the major sector bodies, said in a statement: 'We are in exceptional circumstances and are doing our utmost to keep construction sites operational wherever it is practical and safe to do so.

'Whilst the guidance from Public Health England may change in future, for the time being construction sites of any size that are operating during the Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic need to ensure they are protecting their workforce and minimising the risk of spread of infection.

'To implement the Government’s social distancing recommendation the Construction Leadership Council has now published Site Operating Procedures.'

Andy Mitchell, chair, Construction Leadership Council, added: 'If an activity cannot be undertaken safely due to a lack of suitably qualified personnel being available, or social distancing being implemented, it should not take place. We are aware that emergency services are also under great pressure and may not be in a position to respond as quickly as usual.'

Site Operating Procedures are available here.

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