The government’s recently announced lockdown exit plan included details on the phased return of the construction industry, set to commence on the 12th of April. Childcare and residential projects will be the first to kick off; the return will then be kept under review until the 4th of May when, Covid-19 infection rates allowing, a full return of the construction industry will finally be allowed.

The return of the construction industry has been a long time coming. Time and time again, Ireland’s construction sector has shown that it’s more than capable of complying with guidelines. Such is the level of compliance within the industry that only 150 Covid cases were reported on sites since January, with an estimated 40,000 workers currently working every day. Of the 158,000 cases of Covid-19 * since January, only 145 cases were associated with construction sites whilst over 780 sites and 40,000 people were still operating.

Every other country in Europe has allowed its construction industry to reopen, leaving Ireland far behind. So why are we so different? It’s hard to shake the feeling that Ireland’s construction sector is being punished or perhaps being used as a scapegoat, much like the hospitality industry. The fact is that for every week the construction sector is shut, 800 homes will not be delivered this year. Bad news for a country that already requires as many as 47,000 houses each year for the next five years just to meet demand.

For several years, Irish construction firms have been implementing the most rigorous, stringent health and safety precautions across their sites. “Our teams along with our clients and specialist subcontractors have worked tirelessly to implement the guidance provided by the HSE, CIF, medical experts and World Health Organisation to ensure all our employees have a safe working environment and to reduce the spread of the virus to our workforce,” said Mary Bec Linehan at Jones Engineering.

Dedicated Covid-19 compliance officers are on hand to enforce strict protocols, says . “The reports produced by the CIF show that the data backs up the assertion that construction is safe to reopen. We, along with our colleagues in the industry are asking the Government to let us get back to work now to protect thousands of businesses and livelihoods.”

It’s not just construction companies that are feeling the strain of the sector shutdown. The continuation of the enforced closure of most non-residential building projects is prolonging the pressure on the industry throughout the supply chain. “This is having very serious consequences to the health and sustainability of many businesses in our sector. How supply and productivity copes upon reopening remains to be seen, but given we are the only country in Europe that has closed our construction sector, I have real concerns about the damage this has done to global investor confidence in Ireland who maybe don’t see us as a safe bet anymore,” said Colm McHugh, Managing Director – Ireland, PERI Formwork & Scaffolding Ltd.

Another concern is that workers will be forced to relocate in order to find work. “A major concern the sector has, which government has yet to address, is the potential transfer of labour to other jurisdictions, leaving a further dearth of skilled construction workers domestically,” said Colm McGrath at Surety Bonds. A decrease in FDI will also have a major impact on our economy going forward.

“Aside from the obvious short-term negative impact on the sector, I am concerned that investor confidence in Ireland Inc is waning which will have long-term detrimental impact on our ability to attract capital. Leaders in government, please remember phasing back up needs planning and I would urge them to show leadership and courage in reopening our beleaguered construction sector,” Colm added.

Several construction companies have criticized the government for the approach it has taken to the construction industry and its decision not to open up all sites from April the 12th. “Can we say that the government have been consistent and sensible in its classification of what is essential or not? I don’t believe so. The broad-stroke approach is lazy and is having a massive impact on what has proven to be a safe industry,” said Joseph Lenihan, General Manager at Groundforce.

After the Celtic Tiger years, when Ireland was in the grip of a devastating recession, construction was a dirty word in Ireland. The current situation, with sites unable to open up and thousands of workers set to remain out of work until the 4th of May, reminds me of those dark times. All the evidence points to an industry willing and eager to embrace all safety guidelines and yet, it is being prevented from doing so. It’s time to open all sites and let the industry do what it does best – safely and in compliance with government guidelines.

*Key outcomes of the HSPC report (from 22/11/2020 to midnight on 20/03/2021) as follows:

Workplace outbreaks amount to 7% of all outbreaks of C-19

Construction contributes no more than 5% of workplace outbreaks.

63% of all C-19 outbreaks (3037 of 4786) are related to social gatherings. Persons are at less risk of C-19 in the workplace, following adherence to strict protocols, with some exceptions (e.g. frontline health workers).

Of the specified workplaces outlined in the HSPC report, construction has the lowest number of C-19 cases versus other sectors (145) since January:

Construction Industry

Of the 158,361 confirmed cases (since January), 145 cases (0.09% of total) were attributed to construction:

Denise Maguire   Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine