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Over the past 100 days, the coronavirus pandemic has demanded swift changes within the UK construction industry, which are expected to remain in place for some time to come.

Sutcliffe Managing Director, Sean Keyes, talks about these changes and how the coronavirus pandemic is transforming the construction industry – from increased construction site safety to the impact on the housing market.

Like in every sector, every profession and every walk of life, Covid-19 will impact and change the way construction is done for many years to come – we can all be sure of that.

Sutcliffe was probably one of the first in the country to witness these changes first-hand. We had already been working with Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (as civil engineering consultants following the demise of the previous contractor) when some elements of the project were accelerated to enable additional ICU wards to open in order to meet the increasing capacity caused by the escalating pandemic.

In my 30 plus years in the profession I am currently witnessing very different construction sites to those I am used to – social distancing, where workers never encroach within the revised one metre of their colleagues, face masks being worn by all, and more frequent hand washing. I have also observed temperature checks to all staff, and one-way networks adopted similar to what the supermarkets have been doing for some months now. Importantly, if employees cannot get to the site safely and sensibly, then they shouldn’t be there. I would be lying if I said the atmosphere wasn’t unique, and strange almost – but everyone is getting on with the job at hand, carrying out their tasks in a professional and sensible manner, being respectful of their workmates and alert to the potential risks.

And who can blame them? Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the death rate among low-skilled construction workers was 25.9 per 100,000 males, or 22 deaths in total, placing it among the worst-hit occupations. However, I remain incredibly optimistic for the construction industry and believe that if we follow the safety guidelines, we will adapt and prosper in this new norm. We are used to working in dangerous conditions such as demolition sites, contaminated land and sites containing asbestos – this is no different.

Lockdown restrictions are being eased – with more people encouraged to return to work if it is safe to do so. Sutcliffe has implemented a phased return to work. Our decision comes following guidance given by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), and regular conversations with other engineers from across the UK to gauge general opinion. The ACE informs us that they have been consulting with the Government for many months now about the easing of restrictions, and I am told that Downing Street recognises the construction sector as being instrumental in getting the UK economy motoring again – bolstered by the Prime Minister’s recent pledge to spend £5bn to “build, build, build” the country out of the crisis. This is encouraging and the right thing to do.. 

As experts in the housing sector – Sutcliffe has worked in the residential sector to over £1 billion in recent years – I will also be keeping a close eye on how the pandemic will affect the housing market long term. I predict that with the increased notion of working from home and the desire for healthier lifestyles, we will see a rise in demand for rural living, while properties with access to wide, open green space will become a priority for buyers.

Now in our 35th year, Sutcliffe enjoyed one of its most successful years to date in 2019, which crucially provides us with a solid financial footing in such extraordinary challenging times. There is no denying that this is going to be an extremely testing time for the whole of the construction industry but I am genuinely relieved that we are going into stormy waters on the back of a really successful financial year.

The speed at which Covid-19 has hit all our lives is quite surreal and reminds us all how we need to better look after our planet and the food chain. Sutcliffe has an experienced top team with 150 years of management experience between us, and all have lived through many difficult periods before – we will be drawing from this wealth of experience and knowledge to guarantee our future success and to do our bit in rebuilding the UK economy.

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