So went a recent conversation with a colleague of mine and I am sure he is not he only one to wonder whether his recent illness was covid-19 related or some other more common virus. I have even spoken with others who are convinced that even before Covid-19 was considered to be an international problem, with the benefit of hindsight (as they see it), they now look back to an illness just after Christmas 2019 that “bears the hallmarks of Covid-19”.

As the UK starts to move slowly towards life after lockdown and reports appear of major construction sites opening up again, conversation on site and within our MS Teams meetings (other video conferencing providers are available) will no doubt, in similar fashion, turn to whether or not as individuals we were infected by Covid-19 and whether going forward there is any immunity available as a result of having had a dose of the virus during lockdown or indeed, whether we were impacted by the virus even before the lockdown was even instigated. And what’s going to happen in the pre-vaccine period if we don’t have immunity or have never been touched by the virus in the first instance? And when will a vaccine become available that will relegate Covid-19 to the list of viruses that have been defeated by the brilliance of our medical research scientists?

These are all justifiable concerns on a personal level but I am struck by their applicability to the construction industry as a whole and the thousands of construction sites nationwide that constitute that industry.

As we open up our various sites, there are so many issues that we will not be able to avoid and will need to be addressed not only for the safety and wellbeing of our workforce but the commercial wellbeing of clients, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers alike.

One of the first issues we will need to deal with is the extent to which the lockdown and covid-19 related matters have impacted and indeed, will impact our site progress. In short, when are we going to finish and how much of the delay that we are experiencing is covid-19 related? As we set about this, here’s just a few thoughts that I have linked to covid-19 related vocabulary that I trust will assist.

Pre-existing conditions

It would be easy to lose sight of the fact that even before Covid-19 was mentioned and the lockdown in place our projects could have been in delay. That may of course have nothing to do with Covid-19. It could be the stuff of more traditional delays with contractors struggling to progress works due to their own issues or those created by their clients. Either way, the lockdown has provided a unique opportunity for all.

So often when analysing (usually retrospectively) a programme to discover the extent of delay at any given point, we strike a line and use contemporaneous records to try and establish what progress had been achieved at that given point – if only they could stop for a day and let us take an actuate record! Well here is our chance. For better or for worse, if your site has been shut or even seriously impacted by the Covid-19 issue, you have the perfect opportunity to create a full and detailed record of where progress is. This will indicate what pre-existing conditions have contributed to the overall delay of the project. It would be my advice that each site undertakes a full audit of progress achieved, preferably as a joint exercise engaging clients, contractors and subcontractors to establish the state of play when everything shut down. In so doing, there is every likelihood the impact of pre-existing conditions – delays that have nothing to do with Covid-19 – will be isolated.

The ‘new normal’

It is highly unlikely in my view that a return to site in the near future will be a return to the ‘halcyon’ days that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic. The workforce of contractors and subcontractors alike will have to undertake works in changed conditions reflecting the social distancing requirements that will remain in place. Such measures will also impact supply chains with manufacturers unable to match the required output, again, as a direct result of the revised working conditions that will represent the ‘new normal’. If we are honest, the best we are going to do in forecasting the impact of future progress rates is a ‘best guess’. However, what we should not do is thoughtlessly reschedule the old program and project a revised completion date utilising the original programme durations, before asking ourselves, are they viable in the ‘new normal’? Equally, we need to avoid a knee jerk reaction whereby revised target programmes are produced that attempt to improve previous indications of future progress rates.

Covid -19 notifications

For contractors in particular, make sure you get your notifications in. Assume nothing! There is plenty out there regarding force majeure and whether extensions of time are going to be issued. In reality, only time will tell. With the protection of the contract, many Employers will not need to respond with positive action to a request for an extension of time for up to 12 weeks after submissions are made by the Contractors. So get those notifications in and provide the relevant information. ‘I’m late because of Covid’ is not going to be sufficient. Force majeure may well cover a pandemic but that will not relieve contractors of the obligation to demonstrate what impact the virus has had upon progress or indeed the obligation to explain the specifics of why it was not able to continue work on site when the UK Government had facilitated ongoing works.

Tracking and testing

Although this would be standard advice even without covid-19, the keeping of good progress records on a monthly basis going forward is essential. As I have already said, the effects of the virus are not over when the sites open up – there will be ongoing impact and it is essential records are kept and shared with all relevant parties.

Together we can beat this

After 42 years in the UK construction industry I have discovered that the one thing that does not seem to change is our attitude towards risk and our ability to look for people to blame when the risk becomes a reality. This is an ideal opportunity for the construction industry to kick against its usual adversarial approach and for clients/employers, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers alike to stop looking for someone to carry the can. When we were getting into contract at the end of 2019, no one could have imagined the havoc that a hitherto unknown virus would wreak on our world – robbing hundreds of thousands of families of loved ones – old and young – and the sad reality is, it’s not over yet. So against that backdrop, can we get our act in order – can we demonstrate how the construction industry in the UK can be the best example of good practice and exhibit the spirit of unity that humankind (never mind your company) so longs to see.

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