Construction industry chiefs have voiced their anger as firms scramble to understand if building sites should stay open.
Building work is being allowed to continue despite Boris Johnson ordering people to stay in their homes on Monday night. It has fuelled anger from workers who fear their safety is at risk, and from health staff concerned about overcrowding on public transport.
Several large firms including Taylor Wimpey and Travis Perkins have decided to stop working until the lockdown is lifted, highlighting the confusion ricocheting around the industry.
Iain McIlwee, chief executive of FIS, the trade body which represents fit-out companies, said: “We’re in limbo right now. Government communications have been absolutely woeful on this one.”
He said businesses were trying to understand how to balance their responsibility to keep people safe with the need to keep staff in work.
The message to builders has been to carry on operating until they are told to stop, Mr McIlwee added.
At the highest levels of Government, disputes were raging on Tuesday over why construction work was continuing.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said he told Mr Johnson builders should not be going to building sites except for essential safety reasons.
He claimed to have been overruled by the prime minister, who said he wanted “business as usual” wherever possible.
Mr McIlwee said: “For me it’s shocking that the Government didn’t give us a namecheck on Monday.
“Ultimately construction hasn’t had the clear guidance we need. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
One piece of advice issued by the Government was for workers on site to ensure social distancin, where they stay apart from each other to stop the virus spreading.
But for many thousands of builders, the idea of maintaining a safe distance was laughable.
One construction worker said: “What about the canteens and [toilets] on sites, with 50 guys using two toilets and six tables? They’ve obviously not got a clue.”
Photos shared on social media of builders eating side by side in cramped canteens have generated angry responses from the public.
This close proximity has led large construction firms to shut down while social distancing rules are in force.
One of the UK’s largest construction projects – the nuclear plant Hinkley Point C – said on Tuesday afternoon that it would drastically reduce the number of staff it was asking to work on site.
Builders at Hinkley Point C were one of the groups pictured on social media, working in close quarters. Meanwhile, work on fellow megaproject Crossrail has been halted for now.
Even if the Government allows construction work to continue, many smaller firms will be forced to cease operations as they are unable to get hold of essential parts.
Gutterworks, a construction firm based in Redhill, Surrey, said that it is now unable to get important tools from builders’ merchants firms such as Travis Perkins, which decided to shut up shop after Mr Johnson’s announcement on Monday night.
Hossam Abougabal, a senior construction analyst at IHS Markit, said: “In the short-term, our view is that construction projects will be severely impacted by social distancing rules and restrictions on non-essential construction work.”
Mr Abougabal said that the outlook for the construction industry is likely to suffer from global supply chain disruptions, labour shortages and site shutdowns.
He added: “All this will compound a difficult year for the sector with delays, extensions and rising building costs likely to impact project delivery.”
This stress is already being felt. Housebuilders Redrow, Berkeley, and Crest Nicholson have all scraped or scaled back their dividends as the industry reels from chaos.
Some trade organisations have suggested that the construction sector has been allowed to continue because of the country’s housing crisis.
But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said construction sites should close.
Plumbers and electricians can now only leave the house for essential jobs, such as burst pipes.
John Giazzi, marketing manager at the Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors (APHC), said: “They understand their role as key workers in protecting public health, and they’re happy to do emergency call outs.”
“They want to do the right thing but also follow the Government’s advice.”
Mr Giazzi added that more support is needed for plumbers and electricians, many of whom are sole traders.