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Coronavirus: Government under pressure to order closure of construction sites

Coronavirus: Government under pressure to order closure of construction sites

Boris Johnson is under pressure to order the closure of non-essential construction sites as workers are forced to travel despite a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

The mayors of London and Manchester, and leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all joined industry officials in calling for a halt to non-essential building work.

But communities secretary Robert Jenrick insisted it is “sensible” for construction work to continue if “safe to do so” and if employers follow Public Health England’s social distancing guidance.

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He admitted the health measures would “prove too difficult for some site operators to adhere to” when challenged on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning.

“That’s why you have seen a number of companies choosing to close down their in the last day or two,” Mr Jenrick said, as housebuilder Persimmon became the latest major firm to announce it would halt all non-essential work.

He insisted some construction roles are essential, such as safety work and efforts to remove flammable cladding “of the sort we saw on Grenfell Tower”, adding: “There is work that will need to continue if it is safe to do so throughout this crisis.”

Industry officials have demanded further “clarity from the government”, raising concerns that current measures are risking the lives of employees and those they may come into contact with.

Sadiq Khan urged the government to halt non-safety construction work to help reduce demand for public transport, after commuters posted pictures of packed Underground carriages, along with pleas for change.

“It remains the case that too many of the people using [Transport for London] services at the busiest times work in construction,” Mr Khan said, adding that TfL had already lost 30% of its staff to sickness and would soon likely have to reduce services even further.

“The idea that construction workers can stay two metres apart during the course of a busy day, but also the idea we can’t put on hold certain construction work in light of this public health crisis, I find astonishing.”

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Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham accused the government of prioritising the economy.

“This decision about allowing non-essential work appears to be taken for economic reasons when actually – when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic – health reasons alone really should be guiding all decision making,” he told Newsnight on Tuesday.

One site worker, an electrician in east London who gave his name as Nelson, told Today he decided to stop working for fears he could be spreading Covid-19.

He suggested workers are now faced with an impossible choice.

“People know of people who are now in hospital and they’ve caught it onsite,” he said.

“There seems to be a lot of continued lack of distancing taking place and obviously the cross-contamination is rife. I’m at a bit of a loss for words … I’m really not sure where to go from here.

“Everyone’s situation is unique to them, and I’ve been having ongoing arguments all day as to why I was onsite up until now. Personally, I need to be earning money, otherwise in a month I’m going to feel the pinch.”

Some 1.3 million workers in the construction sector are self-employed, according to the BBC, meaning they are yet to receive any meaningful financial support from the government.

As millions of self-employed Britons are kept anxiously waiting, senior Tory Sir Iain Duncan Smith said support packages will be announced within days.

“I believe the government has reached a conclusion about that, the best way to do it is to look back over the average for the year but that does leave out some who haven’t been self-employed for over a year,” he told Newsnight.

Additional reporting by PA

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