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Coronavirus: UK construction industry ‘stuck in quicksand’

Constructions workers on a building site in Belfast.Constructions workers on a building site in Belfast.
Construction workers’ health is at risk from continued work amid the coronavirus pandemic, campaigners warn. (PA)

The UK construction industry is facing its steepest downturn since global financial crisis more than a decade ago as the coronavirus batters the sector.

A closely watched survey of business leaders showed the steepest monthly decline in work in March in almost 11 years.

New orders slumped and work stopped on many sites as the outbreak hobbled activity, ending a fragile recovery since December’s election boosted confidence.

A purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for the sector plummeted to 39.3 in March from 52.6 in February. Figures above 50 show growth and below 50 show decline on the survey, carried out by IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS).

Read more: UK government under pressure to halt construction work

The UK property market has been knocked sideways by the pandemic, with leading estate agents forced to furlough staff as activity has collapsed.

Coronavirus fears have not only stopped in-person viewings and valuations, but also battered confidence among buyers and sellers. Growing job losses and tighter lending conditions are also likely to hit the market in the months ahead.

Separate analysis released by Knight Frank on Monday pointed to a sharp decline in UK residential property sales in 2020 as the lockdown hobbles activity.

Read more: Rising UK house price data ‘irrelevant’ as lockdown batters property market

The estate agent and consultancy predicted sale numbers would drop 38% on 2019 levels to 734,000 transactions this year. But it only expects UK house prices to slide 3% in 2020, and predicts they will recover sharply in 2021.

The latest figures come amid enormous controversy over continued work on many construction sites, despite the government’s lockdown and advice to stay at home.

The government has ordered non-essential retailers and venues to close, but has not restricted most other businesses’ ability to continue to trade and order staff into work.

Construction firms have been given the go-ahead to continue with projects, as long as social distancing guidelines such as staying two metres apart are followed.

But construction workers, unions and opposition parties are urging the government to introduce further restrictions. They warn conditions on some sites and commuting prevent workers staying apart, putting their own and their families’ health at risk.

Many workers face a stark choice between risking their health and losing their jobs or income by staying at home. Some housebuilders and other construction firms have voluntarily ceased work, however.

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