Scientists surprised at construction industry Covid clusters

The construction industry has been singled out as being a higher-than-expected source of Covid-19 outbreaks given stringent safety regulations being imposed on it.

A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said yesterday (22 November) he had been “surprised” by the rates of transmission in the construction sector.

Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme Professor Calum Semple said he was surprised at the level of Covid infections emanating from the sector.

He said: “You would have thought working outside wouldn’t be a risk but many people in construction are actually working inside before buildings are made Covid-safe.

“So the construction industry has turned out to be a risk that I was surprised to see.”

An industry source told Personnel Today the consensus among firms was that the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) had been quick to produce thorough and workable site operating procedures. But he conceded that many people beyond the sector did not realise that many construction workers actually carried out many tasks inside, in confined spaces.

The Unite union, which represents many construction workers, responded to Professor Semple’s comments with a statement by Jerry Swain, national officer for construction.

He said: “The professor is right that a great deal of construction work is undertaken inside often in poorly ventilated areas and the risk of transmission is increased in poor weather as workers seek protection from the elements.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unite has argued that construction employers need to ensure that workers are protected from when they leave home until when they return home at night.”

Swain suggested that unregulated labour was a key risk factor in the transmission of Covid-19: “Huge swathes of the industry operate through bogus self-employment or agency labour where workers have no employment rights and engagements are short. In these circumstances and with unemployment growing, workers fear that if they raise concerns they will have their contracts terminated and will struggle to find new employment.

“This failure is likely to have contributed to the high transmission rate and has seriously undermined the social distancing messages vital to the protection of workers.”

It was also the case, argued Swain, that many construction workers were unable to self-isolate because of personal financial pressures, with many not qualifying for the job retention scheme, self-employment grants or extra payments for self-isolating.

He added that larger sites have been better in ensuring Covid-safe working practices were enacted. However, similar measures on smaller sites and in the domestic sector were “either weak or non-existent”.

Unite said, in view of Professor Semple’s comments, that Unite would be writing to the CLC and the government to call for the creation of separate site operating procedures to cover both indoor and outdoor construction work.

A study that compared the numbers of people at risk from Covid transmission in various sectors was carried out during the summer by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. It found that construction had a middling level of risk when it came to numbers of clusters reported, placing it between education and law enforcement/military. After care homes and hospitals, food processing was the sector with the highest Covid transmission risks.

In the ONS Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey between 5 October and 18 October 2020, 36.2% of construction firms surveyed stated that their revenue remained below what they would usually expect for the time of year.

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