With a plan now in place to ease the COVID-19 restrictions in Ireland, and a similar announcement from Stormont for Northern Ireland planned for next week, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the different regimes the construction sector has been operating under across Ireland since the restrictions were put in place.
The headline is that there have been slightly different approaches north and south of the border. Ireland is operating under a clear, top down directive from central government whereby all construction activity - apart from essential work, such as road repair and maintenance - is forbidden. Northern Ireland has been operating under a more discretionary regime, whereby activity in priority sectors can continue. However, the list of priority sectors is only advisory so does not amount to forbidding construction activity from taking place.
It is for public health professionals to decide which approach is more appropriate however, as the CIOB and RICS point out in a recent letter to the Northern Ireland Ministers for Finance and the Economy, adopting an advisory approach has led to a lack of clarity for the construction sector. Accordingly, the letter asks the Northern Ireland Executive to clarify the circumstances where social distancing guidelines cannot be adhered to on specified construction sites as cited in the Priority Sectors list.
The measures in Ireland are stricter and essentially amount to a total shutdown of construction. While it is obviously very unfortunate that construction must shut down, it is in the public interest and this stringency brings an accompanying clarity.
As the restrictions are lifted in the coming weeks, there are two questions facing the construction sector: what is in the post COVID-19 project pipeline, and how will sites operate? In the normal run of things, the construction industry is very safety conscious. It operates under strict rules of health and safety, and as such is well placed to police itself through new regulations and additional enforcement. It therefore makes sense that in Ireland construction will be one of the first industries to see restrictions lifted on 18th May. We will find out whether Stormont shares this view next week.
Most construction projects will be impacted by COVID-19, and this will bring uncertainty, which is anathema to the sector. However, government can go some way to mitigating this uncertainty in its capacity as a client.
The CIOB’s ‘Real Face of Construction’ report emphasises the role that government can play in subduing volatility in the construction sector by providing a clear pipeline of infrastructure projects. Ireland’s Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform has introduced measures to mitigate the risks for Exchequer-funded capital projects during the COVID-19 crisis period. Any actions that provide clarity and relieve uncertainty at this challenging time are welcome, and we commend the measures announced aimed at safeguarding Project Ireland 2040.
Similarly, the CIOB has made the case to the Finance and Economy Ministers in Northern Ireland of the importance of bringing forward departmental capital programmes.
There are green shoots for construction, as the shutdown provides an opportunity to carry out much needed repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure, particularly in cities that are now more or less car-free. Many local authorities are reimagining areas to be more pedestrian and cycle friendly in preparation for the new social-distancing reality we will face when we emerge from the lockdown. The way we interact with towns and cities is going to change, and the construction sector is well placed to facilitate this through the repurposing of spaces, paths and roads to allow for social distancing, which will be with us long after the various restriction regimes are lifted.