Muddying the waters

CEF Assistant Director Mark Spence reflects on the NI Executive's mixed messages...

Mark Spence, Assistant Director, Construction Employers Federation.
Construction in Northern Ireland has acted responsibly since the start of the current Covid-19 crisis by leading with a safety-first message for contractors, employees and clients. Immediately following the lockdown ‘stay at home’ statement by Prime Minister, Boris Johnston on March 23, the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) issued unambiguous guidance that only essential construction work should continue in support of the fight against the coronavirus.
CEF had for weeks been reviewing the extent of work that could feasibly be carried out within the social distancing guidelines. Taking into accounts the viewsof a growing number of concerned members, it was decided that as a temporary measure, there was no alternative but to call for the industry to stand down in the interests of public safety. That call was heeded by the vast majority of the industry who can rightly be commended for doing the right thing.

The shutdown of the industry here was followed in quick succession by Scotland, The Republic of Ireland and most of Great Britain. In the interim, the industry has led the support of frontline workers in practical ways, such as donations of PPE, and crucially in terms of the daily delivery of essential services, including converting COVID-19 wards in hospitals, maintaining utilities, logistics and essential maintenance of care homes, retail, manufacturing and vulnerable housing.

Unfortunately, from day one of the crisis there has been a level of political ambiguity and ineptitude in messaging as the Northern Ireland Executive attempts to resolve the seemingly irreconcilable aims of keeping the economy moving and maintaining public safety. The release of an ‘advisory list’ of ‘priority sectors’ was the most recent in a long line of inconsistent messaging that failed to add clarity to an already confused picture.

If the messages from Stormont have created some confusion, we have attempted to ensure that there has been no such ambiguity from the CEF. We have made it clear that construction, like all other sectors, will not be able to operate in the same way as prior to the crisis and both contractors and clients will need to adapt to this new working environment. Thankfully, in the intervening time, there has been considerable effort expended locally and nationally in developing guidance for safe working in specific sectors including construction.

Specifically, the CEF set up a member-led Task Force to collate the best guidance available and make this available not just to members but to the industry as a whole. The aim – to ensure a consistent and safe approach to working. The collaboration and cooperation of
a great many companies, health & safety consultants and experienced hands was no surprise in an industry that has endured and survived many crises of the economic, political, and now viral kind. Nevertheless, it has been a very confirmatory experience. There really is a bond within the construction community that will ensure this, like every hurdle before it, will be overcome.

Whilst there is now bespoke working safely guidance available, the message is unchanged. If you cannot work safely, do not work. Where you can work safely within the evolving guidance, you should liaise closely with staff and clients to ensure
their understanding of the new procedures. Clients must understand that adapting and complying with the new good practice has productivity and cost implications. Contractors should engage with clients to flag the expected costs and delays that result from adherence to comprehensive guidelines relevant to each project. The CEF has called on clients to be flexible and collaborative in allowing companies the time and space to implement new ways of working.

Construction in NI has played a full role to date in both the fight against the spread of the virus and the support of essential services. The industry shall continue to act responsibly with safety foremost in every decision and would seek the full cooperation of clients, both public sector and commercial, to deliver the safe and quality work for which NI construction is renowned.

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