Actuate UK: COVID fallout could lead to a winter of discontent for construction

Actuate UK: COVID fallout could lead to a winter of discontent for construction

Fiona Hodgson

The further relaxation of COVID restrictions has been greeted with much excitement, yet construction experts claim COVID continues to cast a dark shadow on their industry – and say the knock-on effects of the pandemic will still be felt long after summer is over.

The twin perils of a skills shortage and long COVID could both have a devastating impact on a volatile construction industry this winter.

That’s the warning from Actuate UK, which says the sector should continue to be vigilant and follow good practice guidance to avoid disruption – and that businesses and government should start planning now to avoid winter disruption.

Construction output currently remains above its February 2020 level, but the alliance of leading building engineering services – which includes two leading Scottish trade associations – says the industry still faces many risks.

Actuate UK highlights data from a new survey that raises questions about the ability of the UK construction sector to return to pre-pandemic activity levels.

According to the YouGov poll commissioned by Actuate UK members, in the year up to May 2021, across all members of staff, small to medium-sized construction firms each lost an average of 29 days every month from staff absent from work.

This figure excluded people on furlough – and Actuate UK says the situation will only get worse as businesses go under or are forced to operate on much-reduced capacity, with key projects delayed or coming to a costly halt.

Fiona Hodgson, CEO of Actuate UK member SNIPEF, said: “As the restrictions ease, Actuate UK urges industry to strike a balance when considering the health of its workers and the need to move the economy forward.

“This survey gives us grave concern about the long-term effects of COVID on our industry. Building services are the lifeblood of all major construction projects, with heating, lighting, ventilation and digital infrastructure essential to successful project delivery.

“Yet we continue to hear from members there are simply not enough skilled installers to meet current demand and we are deeply concerned this will impact on government targets and future projects.”

Construction was one of the few industries which continued essential work in Scotland during lockdown, building and maintaining infrastructure of national importance, including the Louisa Jordan hospital.

The demand for construction has shown little sign of slowing and the UK Government is currently looking at the sector to lead the post-pandemic recovery, funding new infrastructure projects such as the New Hospitals Programme in England and the electrification of the UK’s road and rail networks.

However, Actuate UK says that with a significantly reduced workforce, it won’t be possible to keep pace with demand – and key projects could suffer as a result.

Fiona Harper, director of employment and skills at Actuate UK member SELECT, added: “We’re hearing first-hand accounts of construction firms being unable to recruit skilled staff, despite full order books. And this is only the start.

“The pandemic has had repercussions for training, with the number of new entrants coming into some areas of construction declining. The difficulties of gaining practical experience, along with reduced numbers in many key areas, has also taken its toll.”

The spectre of long COVID throws another shadow on the horizon, with recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that 385,000 people in the UK have lived with symptoms for a year or more.

Although vaccination can help guard against the initial impact of COVID itself, sufferers can experience brain fog and fatigue caused by long COVID, preventing them from returning to work.

Ms Harper added: “While life may return to ‘the new normal’ for many in the coming weeks and months, for others, the long-term impact of the pandemic will remain a very real barrier to work.

“The knock-on consequences of this and the skills shortage could be all too real for individuals, businesses and the economic recovery itself, so it’s vital that we factor in contingency plans and take steps to protect our workforce.”

Commissioned by Actuate UK members ECA and the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), the YouGov survey canvassed opinions from 2,000 businesses of up to 249 employees.

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