Mixed messages again

Jack Blanchard- Politico Newsletter

… So just why are construction workers not told to down tools by the UK government, as Sturgeon has demanded (a point Wales’ Mark Drakeford today echoed)? As I put it to Hancock today, some will cynically suspect the reason is not unconnected with the Tories pulling in £1m in pre-election donations from housing developers. Even Conservatives in rural areas have long muttered that the party’s cosy relations with the housebuilding industry threatens to tear up their green and pleasant land.

Yet the failure to ban construction work in this lockdown may be simpler. First, the complex nature of the chancellor’s self-employed wage support plan means it could be days if not weeks away. Second, many builders (like White Van Man and Woman) voted Tory in last year’s election. Third, there’s a wider worry that cancelling such a big part of economic activity would plunge the nation into an even deeper crisis. Only today, the latest Markit data pointed to a collapse that would spark a serious recession.

There’s also no small irony in the fact that only two weeks ago – yes just two weeks ago – Rishi Sunak was unveiling a Budget which trumpeted massive infrastructure spending and lots and lots more construction work. They were Rishi Rich and Bozza the Builder remember? In theory, the promise of billions of pounds of future work ought to keep the industry afloat despite a temporary lockdown.

But reality may be much more grim for job losses. And perhaps the real issue with construction is how coronavirus is laying bare an industry which is usually ignored because it rolls on regardless. One building firm boss emailed me today to say the industry had appalling payment processes, that big contractors bully smaller ones, that many firms go bust then resurface “ready to dupe the next subcontractor in the queue”. Add in zero-hours for some, health and safety fears for others and it’s no wonder the PM wants to steer clear of this mess of problems unless he absolutely has to.

But if this virus death toll gets much worse, Johnson may have to shut down most building sites (many of their suppliers are shutting anyway) and put the nation’s physical health before its economic health. A wider shutdown would also fit with the pattern of his handling of the crisis so far: hold off, hold off, then finally submit to the inevitable. Can he fix it? Yes he Khan. …”

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