In the closing weeks of March, the United Kingdom was plunged into a state of emergency the likes of which had never been previously experienced. Tackling the threat to public safety posed by the Covid-19 pandemic required an infrastructure drive of unprecedented proportions, all of which had to be achieved within the limitations and restrictions of social distancing. As many sectors were forced to shut down indefinitely in order to weather the storm, the UK’s construction industry stepped up to the plate and helped our government and public services tackle the crisis head on – demonstrating an extraordinary capacity for partnership and collaboration in the process.

For every organisation in the construction industry, safeguarding the health and well-being of employees has been of paramount importance throughout. The Builders’ Merchants Federation have produced Branch-Operating Guidelines to provide safe operating procedures for builders’ merchant operations while Covid-19 restrictions continue, and Osborne’s free industry safety briefing ‘Stop Think!’ in April was entirely devoted to coronavirus, and included guidance for site teams, information on First Aid and Covid-19, together with site protocols and posters. The pace of innovation on the ground has been swift; according to Bradfords Group CEO David Young, the operational changes that were required to protect staff and allow for safe trading were devised within the space of a single afternoon; ‘we opened 23rd March under a revised process, but we had to shut down collections at 10:00am as we were inundated and it was getting dangerous. By 7:00am the next day, we had a new process launched across all branches.’

Once in place, these kinds of procedures have enabled the construction industry to be of essential and integral support to the National Health Service’s efforts to control the unfolding public health crisis. As Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, strikingly illustrates, ‘the NHS and social care workers are on the front line, but if that wartime analogy is continued, it is construction that is backing up these vital services, akin to the Royal Engineers, building vital logistical and infrastructural support’. Since the very earliest days of the Coronavirus lockdown in late March, there have been countless examples of the construction industry offering up this kind of indispensable backup.

During the ten-day emergency construction of the Nightingale Hospital in the ExCeL Centre in London alone, Sunbelt Rentals provided valuable equipment, Naylor oversaw the construction of the ventilation system, Keltbray finished the car park, and The Clancy Group‘s team worked around the clock to ensure that the electrical supply to the centre was upgraded and resilient enough to support the demand it may face. Efforts such as these have been underpinned by the tireless work of builders’ merchants like Bradfords, who fast-tracked the opening of an account for builders working on Birmingham’s Nightingale Hospital at the NEC, with the final signature on the account received only moments before the first lorries began loading up. Travis Perkins, meanwhile, offered similar support for the construction of NHS Grampain in Aberdeen. Aggregate Industries have provided the full concrete specification for the NHS Louisa Jordan hospital in Glasgow free of charge, and VINCI Construction UK has had its supply chain working day and night to help create temporary Rainbow Hospitals in Wales. All of this is merely to scratch the surface of the full extent of the tireless contribution made by the construction industry in these efforts to open up emergency healthcare facilities.


In addition to providing such essential services at this difficult time, the construction industry as a whole has donated vast quantities of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to front-line healthcare workers – particularly in the early days of the Coronavirus response, when this vital safety equipment was scarcely available and sorely needed. Again, the roster of companies that have contributed to ensuring the safety of those at the sharp end of the crisis in this manner is extensive. Travis Perkins have provided 34,000 disposable respirators and 640 pairs of protective eyewear to NHS Trusts around the country. Toolstation delivered 30,000 items of PPE to the Nightingale Hospital in Bristol. The Carey Group’s donation took the form of 1,000 masks, goggles, gloves and face shields, delivered to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington in early April. After carrying out critical maintenance at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, Tolent (one of the North East’s biggest construction companies) donated four boxes of FFP3 respirators to help cover a shortfall of available face masks. To date, Magnox has now donated more than 130,000 items of PPE across its 14 sites. The list continues.

All of these organisations have been alert and dynamic in their efforts to identify and respond to need – for example, Bradfords made several of their donations to both regional council services and local GPs surgeries after seeing requests put out on Twitter and Facebook. To ensure that this valuable procurement drive continues, Demolition services provider Cantillon and contractor DE Group have launched the Contractors Appeal, an industry-wide initiative that reaches out to competitors, peers and partners alike for donations of masks, overalls, glasses and gloves.

In the words of Lords Group CEO Shanker Patel, the Covid-19 crisis may have ushered in the BMF’s ‘finest hour’, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the general holistic support offered by construction industry stalwarts to their local communities throughout the UK. Galliard Homes has donated the use of one of the company’s substantial warehouse complexes in Essex, which has been transformed into an emergency local community facility storing essential supplies. Barratt and David Wilson Homes West Scotland have donated all their defibrillators from live developments and head offices to St Andrews First Aid. In Bristol, BAM FM came to the aid of the City Council, who were struggling to deliver the required amount of free school meals to local children in the area; a team of five FM engineers rose to the challenge by clearing their vans of equipment and delivering four thousand school meals to sixty six schools.

As BAM FM South West Operations Manager Neil Porter explains, ‘This was not part of the engineers’ day-to-day activity, yet they adapted and stepped in, so that vulnerable school children could still receive their free school meals and to ensure no children in the city went hungry.’


However, this conscientious approach to supporting communities and essential services at this challenging time is not confined to local-level activity alone. BMF members including Jewson, Travis Perkins, Buildbase and PTS, in addition to a number of other independents, have all pulled together to set up a task force under the banner ‘Trades Against The Virus’. The scheme will signpost tradespeople to support those in need by creating a national network of drop-off points for trade customers to donate store-cupboard basics.

‘The idea is to boost the stocks in the nation’s food banks during this time of crisis,’ explains Ray Stafford, MD of Williams & Co., who first proposed the project. ‘Many food banks have already run out of items, and others are struggling to help their clients, who are among the most vulnerable in our society. Recent supermarket shortages are also adding to the pressure.’

Meanwhile, the A14 Integrated Delivery Team (which is comprised of CostainSkanska, and Balfour Beatty working on behalf of Highways England) have provided pedestrian barriers and traffic cones to help create one-way systems in supermarkets, allowing communities to shop for vital supplies whilst maintaining social distancing.

‘We wanted to keep the public sector moving,’ says David Young of Bradfords. ‘NHS, Care Homes, social housing… and finally, to keep our self-employed customers going too. We have had an outpouring from [them]. If we weren’t open, they would not be earning.’


Indeed, the difficulties presented by lockdown have offered a stark illustration of just how essential the construction sector is to the nation’s wider economy. As Build UK’s Chief Executive Suzannah Nichol MBE puts it, ‘Construction contributes at least 6% of the UK economy (GVA), directly employs more than 7% of the total UK workforce, and supports a further 10% indirectly.’ The construction industry is vital to ensuring that the country is able to cater to the housing and infrastructure needs of its population – not to mention the many smaller independent businesses that rely upon nationwide supply and service networks to be able to operate.

Controversial though it may have been for merchants like Bradfords to remain open at the very start of lockdown, those decisions were taken with clear precautions to protect staff in place, and have been vindicated by the government’s expressed desire to keep construction open, and by the enormous benefits provided to society at large. David Young is rightly proud of his company’s efforts; ‘Bradfords is a business that is 250 years old… we’ve been through world wars, famine, and more, and I am proud Covid-19 has not shut us down.’

Young believes that the way the construction industry has come together and unified has allowed it to respond so effectively to this crisis. ‘I firmly believe we’re stronger together,’ he enthuses. ‘I’ve offered all the details to the BMF, and any merchant can call me, and I’m happy to show them what we’re doing.’ His hope, he explains, is that sharing information will allow merchants, suppliers and construction sites to feed off of each other’s efforts and ‘snowball’ back into action. Shanker Patel echoes these sentiments; ‘this isn’t the time to make decisions based on pure finances. It is a time to make decisions based on empathy. We’re all in it together.’

David Young’s mantra – ‘we’ve got to keep our builders going’ – is hard to argue with, given the fact that, during this time of unprecedented national crisis, it is those very builders who have kept the country itself going.