Re-starting construction sites in Ireland: lessons from China

China was the first country to experience COVID-19, and to introduce country wide shut downs. Equally they have been the first to re-open their economy and construction businesses since 2 March 2020. The Irish market can heed the lessons from China and use these as a cornerstone to prepare for the re-starting of sites.

By Philip Matthews, Director and Head of Project Management and Stephen Grant, Project Director

Our experienced team in China has used its expertise in managing complex programmes to advise clients and prepare them to be the “first out of the traps” after lockdown, which enabled a rapid re-start and kept projects moving.

We share, as part of this article, some of the lessons our colleagues have experienced in the eight weeks since their “re-start”.

Restarting construction sites

We have had the following experience of restarting construction sites:

Micro/site level

  • All sites had to submit applications to re-start and had to identify:
    • Where was the workforce returning from?
    • Had they undertaken a 14 day quarantine?
    • Undergo tests to ensure they were free from COVID-19 and fit to work
  • Mandatory temperature checks of all staff entering sites
  • Facemasks/faceshields mandatory
  • Introduction of UV cleaning on site
  • Increased numbers of sanitising points on site
  • Rotation systems enacted for site canteens to support social distancing
  • The logistics of getting staff to sites
  • All sites underwent a staggered workforce return, taking six to eight weeks for sites to hit full capacity
  • Very few sites have returned to full pre-COVID-19 labour levels, with approximately 10 percent of the labour force remaining at home
  • Our teams experience has been that 99 percent of our projects have re-started, and the majority of these are with Chinese and ‘international’ multinational clients.

Macro level

  • Injection by Government of large investment for public projects has proven crucial, as generally the private sector is proving slower to reengage
  • Focus by the Government on getting their customs processes and systems working quickly to support the re-start.
  • A four to six week delay in materials/supply chain post start-up
  • Collaborative attitude and team management skills were essential in managing projects during the shut-down and allowing the projects to re-start
  • Professional offices are back working but are now operating differently with split shifts of 60 percent office/40 percent remote to enable safe working and resilience in case of another wave of COVID-19. An interesting discovery has been increased productivity seen from remote working, thus perhaps a change to remain in the future.

Irish perspective

Six weeks on from the initial directive of working from home, plans and talks have now shifted to the next phase, that of re-starting the Irish construction industry; getting workers back working and sites up and running again. Sites may be permitted to re-open in early to mid-May.

While construction sites have been very well run pre-COVID-19, it is welcome to see the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) reacting and working closely with its members to introduce new procedures for sites that recognises the realities of working alongside COVID-19, and the measures our industry requires to enable a safe return to work.

Talk this week is that the procedures, if accepted by Government/HSE and once stress tested, could see a relatively quick return.

The CIF has advised that induction programmes mandated by the HSE were starting this week, and once validated, workers could go back to sites on a staggered basis.

As we now look ahead to a planned recovery from this pandemic in Ireland, we need to look to Asia and learn from their experiences and how it could assist Ireland to support a safe and speedy return to full productivity.

While the return to work, and the re-starting of the supply chain in China seems quick, a lot of these are based in country. Ireland may take longer to re-start the supply chain, depending on the source of materials, finishes or furniture if sourced from continental Europe, so six weeks might be optimistic. Alternatively, we may need to look to local sources for materials if possible.

To date, the extent of expenditure by Government in support of meeting the health demands of COVID-19 has been extraordinary.

However the press release by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the 14  April 2020, which included measures on “deferring the award of contracts for construction and construction services contracts unless there are compelling reasons to do so” will cause further stagnation of our economy, at a time when the Government must invest further to protect and re-ignite the economy.

Our experience in China is that contrary to pausing projects, the Government is further stimulating the economy and the re-start by committing to increasing expenditure, investment and supporting the supply chain as they get back on their feet.

For Ireland, there is an expectation that some private clients may take longer to get back to normal, thus making increased Government investment in our healthcare, housing and infrastructure critical to our recovery plans.

Contact us if you want support in navigating this current landscape, minimising disruption and practical measures to help move forward in a safe, controlled and positive manner.

Further resources

Please visit our COVID-19 response page for all of our resources relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the construction sector.

For further information contact:

Philip Matthews
Director and Head of Project Management, Ireland