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How to observe new UK government guidance on containing coronavirus in the construction industry

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United Kingdom

The latest official guidance includes information on social distancing and hand-washing on construction sites, but stops short of offering any definitive direction for the sector.
 
  Amid the various, sometimes conflicting, regulations and guidance, the construction industry has remained in limbo in respect of if, and how, construction sites should be managed through the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
 
In an attempt to clarify the approach, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has provided specific guidance on how construction companies can comply with UK government guidance on controlling the spread of infection
 
To recap, our blog of 24 March 2020 considered Version 1 of the CLC's guidance (issued on 23 March 2020) and our 3 April 2020 update explained the issues with Version 2 of that guidance, which led to the document being revoked within hours of its publication on 2 April.
 
On 7 April, the UK government issued a further guidance note for business, entitled "Social distancing in the workplace during coronavirus (COVID-19): sector guidance", which includes advice for employers on social distancing during coronavirus, with a section dedicated to construction.
 
The salient points from the government's construction guidance are:
 
  • Construction work can continue if done in accordance with the social distancing guidelines wherever possible;
  • If it is not possible to observe social distancing, parties must consider whether that activity needs to carry on for the site to continue to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission;
  • Mitigating actions include:
    • Advising staff to wash their hands frequently using soap and water or hand sanitiser for 20 seconds, especially in certain instances (nose blowing, using public transport, etc.) and before and after operating enclosed machinery;
    • Planning work to minimise contact between workers and avoid skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact. Where face-to-face contact is essential, this should be kept to 15 minutes or less wherever possible;
    • Keeping groups of workers working together in teams that are as small as possible (cohorting) – for example, keeping vehicle crews working together, rather than mixing crew members on different shifts;
    • Keeping enclosed spaces and machinery open for ventilation and avoid face touching; and
    • Using stairs in preference to lifts or hoists where possible. Where lifts or hoists must be used, their capacity should be lowered to reduce congestion and contact at all times, and touchpoints, such as doors and buttons, should be kept clean.
The guidance also advises workers should keep two metres apart as much as possible.
 
What is "possible"?
 
There is a lot of scope in this guidance for interpretation of what is "possible".
 
This suggests that the government is attempting to balance the continuation of construction works with the safety of construction workers.
 
While stopping short of designating construction site staff as "key workers" in the context of the coronavirus outbreak, the guidance does stress that "construction work plays an important role in ensuring public safety and the provision of public services".
 
Many construction companies, particularly those struggling with reduced work forces due to illness/self-isolation measures or a lack of materials due to supply chain disruption, will no doubt find the approach (and lack of absolute direction) a continuing frustration.
 
The next iteration of CLC guidance is likely to be issued in the near future and should incorporate the government construction guidance, and explain further how this might work in practice.
 
In the meantime, construction companies should do what they can to comply with their understanding of the government's guidance and be able to demonstrate the measures they are taking.
 
For more information about how the construction industry should respond to the disruption caused by COVID-19, this video contains some FAQs, with answers that continue to align with current guidance.
 
If you have any questions or concerns about your projects in light of the coronavirus outbreak, Fieldfisher's construction and projects team would be happy to discuss your specific circumstances with you.
 

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