Ever since the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday evening, in which he asked everyone to stay home, UK fenestration has been scrambling to figure out exactly what that meant. All sorts sectors in the UK were quickly trying to figure out if their line of work meant they could be classed as “essential” or if there was an exemption directly mentioned in the published guidance.

There was ambiguity just after, but it was later confirmed that manufacturing and construction were exempt, so long as workers maintained at least a 2m distance from each other and practised social distancing. Regardless of that, much of the installation side of our industry decided to close with immediate effect. Most of fabrication has done the same.

A small percentage however have decided to remain open, and some, including builders merchants, have reopened after deciding to close initially. The problem is that there is mixed signals from Government advice right now, and the question of what is morally right is front and centre of the decision making.

Right or wrong?

It does say that manufacturing and construction are exempt from the lockdown. However today Boris Johnson is under pressure to ban all non-essential manufacturing and construction after being shown pictures of workers on sites clearly not sticking to social distancing rules. And this for me highlights the problem. As it stands, a window fabricator could reopen, or remain open, if they so wished. However, a medium sized fabricator shifting 1000-1500 frames per week is going to be a busy place to be. You cannot operate on those levels with a skeleton staff. The shop floor is packed with product and machinery. The areas where you can walk are not that big. So its almost impossible to maintain being 2m apart, especially working on a bench where you need more than one person to put product together. I think most fabricators know that, and played a part in their decision to close.

The other problem our industry has is there is yet to be any official measures published about support for the self-employed. Without that, many tradespeople will feel forced to go into work as they have no other form of income. Today in PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn gave an example in which a tradesperson had to go on the tube in London, ill with the virus, putting the lives of everyone on the tube and on site at risk, as they had no other form of income. A terrible decision to have to make. But one which I think is influencing builders merchants, trade counters and some fabricators to remain open, so they can serve people like that.

It has now become a question of right or wrong. Some are saying that until the guidelines change, and the exception for construction and manufacturing are removed, they’ll stay open. Many have chosen to close, loophole or otherwise, as they believe it is the right thing to do.

For me, the advice given from the start on Monday night should have been explicit and included non-essential manufacturing and construction to shut down. And when I mean non-essential, unless you’re involved in the building of a hospital, surgery, anything else medical or to do with the emergency services, or maybe a supermarket, you are not essential.

Consider this as well. We’re being told not to visit our family and friends. We could not see our mums on Mother’s Day. Yet, at the same time people are able to turn up to a construction site, or a fitter could choose to fit new windows and doors into a person’s home. So you can’t go see your mum, but you can let a stranger in to fit a new door. See the difficulty of the advice being given right now?

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Social ramifications

Everywhere around us, all other industry is shutting down, or has shut down. Pubs, bars and restaurants are closed. Gyms are closed. National Trust parks are closed. Airlines aren’t operating. London City airport has just announced it is to close until at least the end of April. There is no sporting calendar. Car factories have shut. Breweries, retail and many other sectors. The backlash against construction has been sharp today. The public asked for a shutdown over the weekend, and got it on Monday night. Unless you’re building a hospital, I think the public want everything else to close.

We live in the age of social media, more so than ever. I would say to those who remain open, consider the fallout should a worker become ill during this period of shutdown. I’m not saying what to do, but I am asking you all to consider the reactions it would bring should it discovered workers got ill or worse during this time of lockdown.

In any matter, the decision might well be taken out of our hands before too long. There is pressure on the Government to shut down all non-essential construction and manufacturing as quickly as possible. It may be that in a few days they will remove that exemption. Its also highly likely that in three weeks time, when Boris Johnson said the measures would be reviewed, that they are actually increased further. Most of us expect that. In three weeks time, we’re going to be seeing some awful numbers being announced via media. I cannot imagine these rules being relaxed at all any time soon.

There are few times in our lives where we are asked to undertake a genuine national effort. The last time was the second world war. I am sure we can all pitch in and do what we can to limit the spread of this terrible disease.

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