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Construction industry says evidence does not support shutdown

CIF chief says sites have been closed in recent weeks and sector not responsible for spike in cases

The ‘exemplary record’ of the construction sector in protecting workers from Covid-19 has been defended amid an expectation that work on most building sites will be halted due to the surge in new cases of the disease. Image: iStock.

The construction industry is “redoubling” efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on sites since the Christmas period, but expects the Government to restrict activity following a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation, said he was shocked to learn that the Government was considering closing down the sector in an attempt to control the recent spike.

The Cabinet is expected to order that nearly all construction work should stop until the end of the month, with exceptions for social housing, urgent repairs and critical projects.

“Due to the escalating situation of Covid-19, the construction industry understand that the Government will decide to restrict activity,” Mr Parlon told The Irish Times. “The nature of those restrictions is still not clear and clarity is urgently required.”

Mr Parlon said the industry has had “an excellent track record” at keeping Covid-19 off sites and managing it when on site. “At no point were combined cases over 56 during the previous nine months,” he said.

“The rate of infection per employee industry-wide ranged from 0.003 per cent to 0.035 per cent during this period amongst our 147,000 employees. This is considerably below the population average at all times.

“Companies are redoubling their efforts to prevent/screen Covid from being imported from the community after the Christmas period.

“Testing, screening and constant communication with sub-contractors and employees is underway. The message is if you are a close contact or exhibit any symptoms do not show up to work.”

Mr Parlon pointed out that the spike in Covid-19 incidence occurred during the recent “relaxation phase” and during a period “when industry wasn’t open”.

“The HSE are constantly monitoring incidence on site through their steering committee,” he said. “Construction sites are recognised as positive in terms of managing and mitigating Covid-19 thus helping prevent the spread due to its world class standard operating procedure.

“Finally, no other country – barring some US states and Italy in the initial wave – have shut down construction during lockdowns. Most recently, the UK and Scotland have entered lockdown and left construction operational.

Output dropped

Mr Parlon said that during the first lockdown, when most work in the sector was halted, about 5,000 homes had not been built and output had dropped by 10 per cent at a cost of €3 billion to the industry and the economy.

During discussions in recent days, Mr Parlon said he had been assured that the construction of housing and work on educational projects would continue.

“We will continue to work with the HSE, the HSA and the wider Government on monitoring the situation and will follow the advice as provided by these bodies,” Mr Parlon added.

Construction worker Brendan Hennessy told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland there had been no issues on the sites he had worked on from when activity resumed after the first lockdown up to Christmas.

He said workers were clocking in at different times, following one way systems, using canteens at different time and that everything worked well.

He said, in his experience, workers were not car pooling and people were not allowed on to sites without having their temperature checked.

Developer Michael O’Flynn told the same programme he appreciated how serious the Covid-19 situation has become in recent week.

However, he questioned why it would be seen as safe to build social housing but not private housing, with an exception expected to be given for one over the other.

Mr O’Flynn said the impact of a shutdown for people awaiting a home should be considered and said there should be a consistency in the approach.