Getting to grips with the ‘new normal’

Cathie Clarke is chief executive officer of SPRA
Cathie Clarke is chief executive officer of SPRA

The roofing industry is going to need a shed load of positivity, energy and true collaboration, to get us through the coronavirus crisis, but as a strong bunch, the sector will prevail, says Cathie Clarke, chief executive officer of the Single Ply Roofing Association (SPRA).

The new normal has been a rapidly changing set of circumstances since the government introduced lockdown on March 23, 2020.

The race to ‘flatten the curve’ and not overwhelm the NHS has been the key priority for our government, and there has been some herculean efforts by them and the population to do this whilst also saving lives and doing as much as possible to protect the economy.

But we all know that there are very tough times ahead, and we must continue to adapt to the ‘new normal’ that will be imposed upon us for some time to come.

There is a view of course that we shouldn’t go back to the ‘old normal’ as we appreciate the massive and significant drops in pollution for example that some of the new practices like increased homeworking have created and should be welcomed by all.

However, we do need to understand what is happening now, and there has been considerable confusion, particularly around construction, that has not been helped by the English, Welsh and Scottish governments all choosing different strategies.

Scotland has decided that construction is not essential and therefore should not operate, except when supporting an essential sector as listed on the Scottish Government’s website. Meanwhile, Wales has confirmed that everyone must adhere to the 2m rule, while England has decided that construction and manufacturing should continue, but will not allocate those sectors the ‘essential’ status. This has led to confusion and fear within the sectors and also across the public community who do not understand that the government is happy for them to continue to work if they can operate under approved Site Operating Procedures (SOP).

The SOP guidance itself is on its third version, as the government, Public Health England (PHE) and the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), all try to define the variables (with direct input from SPRA and other trade associations), but clarity is still an ongoing issue, and ultimately, the decision for someone to work in a potentially life or death situation, is theirs alone to take and their fear will override everything until they are convinced that rules are being followed by all and it is safe to venture from their homes.

What is clear is that regardless of when and how the shutdown is lifted, social distancing practices will be required for a long time yet and perhaps, will become the new norm. This will mean dramatic changes in the way we do things, and I can only start to think about the impact this will have on training standards, courses and qualifications that will need to be addressed in the future.

What is also clear is that the construction industry needs to do far more to counter the negative publicity that is being pumped out on social media on an hourly basis, feeding fear and potentially harmful reactions.

We must remember that we cover large commercial projects all the way down to one-man bands doing domestic repair and maintenance work. On our weekly calls with other specialist trade associations and Build UK, we are hearing of members of the public reacting badly when they see construction workers, for instance, throwing bricks and shouting abuse at contractors who are legitimately, and safely, carrying out their work.

Ideally, we would want all UK governments to agree on policy and strategy. However, the English government needs to make it clear that it is their wish for the construction and manufacturing sectors to remain open in England, and to highlight the SOP guidance more widely.

They need to have public information adverts in place and highlight this during their daily briefings at 5pm. The government needs to highlight the form letters they have created on social media for those working in construction and manufacturing, and we all need to promote those that are working safely, and provide case studies of how they are achieving this (Highways England, Wates and VolkerRail have all published coronavirus best practice, whilst Morrisroe has produced a video that sets out coronavirus health and safety advice and the value of the SOP).

To allow the industry to tackle bad practice, those working in the sector must also understand that they can safely and anonymously report it through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

So, make sure you keep abreast of developments and keep feeding back your comments and concerns. SPRA has set up a dedicated page on our website with links to all the sources of information, so you can access everything quickly and easily.

Here at SPRA, we are not providing our own guidance to members, but we are strongly promoting the guidance from the CLC, PHE, HSE and the government, as this is where we add their voice through the mediums of Build UK and the Construction Products Association. We also send out the Build UK daily update to members as a reminder as well.

We are going to need shed loads of positivity, energy and true collaboration to get us through this crisis, but we are a strong bunch and we will prevail!