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The PM must not let Sturgeon and Khan drag the UK into a disastrous construction shutdown

Builders being questioned by police
If builders down tools, many other parts of the economy will shut down too Credit:  Anthony Devlin/Getty Images Europe

Order: Counter-order: Disorder is a sound military maxim that has stayed with me since Sandhurst. And that is what we have had this week in the building industry.

The Government has to strike the right balance between saving lives now and saving the economy, and therefore lives later once the pandemic has passed. We must not have a Pyrrhic victory where more people die in future because the country is bust and cannot fund the NHS properly.

It will have been partly that calculation that led the Cabinet to decide that construction sites must stay open as far as possible with social distancing being maintained. It will partly also have been the knowledge that the building industry is very fragmented and full of self-employed contractors, and therefore very hard to compensate. 

There was unanimity on this and the policy was agreed in all four nations. Then Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, broke ranks. She appeared to lose her nerve at a press conference earlier this week and announced that building sites must close. Later she corrected herself and suggested that the economy had to keep going, and now she has changed her mind again and confirmed that the policy for Scotland is to close down the construction industry with the exception of hospital building.

Ms Sturgeon may come to rue that exception as it has drawn comparisons between Matt Hancock’s 4,000 bed pop-up Nightingale Hospital and her executive’s failure to open hospitals in Scotland like the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, which still lies empty after eight years.

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, has also called for construction work to stop and the pressure may well lead to the whole country downing tools. If this happens the effects will be far reaching.

As a high proportion of the building workforce is Eastern European, there is no guarantee that they will be picked up again. Many have already gone home to beat the lockdown and those that stay may not have much loyalty to Britain once they have been laid off for months. Even those with settled status may decide to leave. We face a huge skills shortage without them.

It is potentially disastrous for farmers like me. We are building a milking parlour here this summer. The work is all outside and social distancing can be maintained. It creates four new jobs. Every week lost in the summer is critical. Many jobs like laying concrete won’t be possible once we lose the good weather in the autumn. We need to start milking in February. 

But it is far worse for the many small builders around here in Galloway facing an uncertain future. In the countryside, farming and building are practically indivisible. They cannot understand why farmers are allowed to drive tractors while they are not allowed to drive diggers. The argument that construction workers are sitting next to NHS workers on public transport in London or Glasgow seems absurd here.

It doesn’t take much for self-employed builders to go bust at the best of times. Many of their workers are also self-employed sub-contractors who cannot just be put on furlough. The mixed messages coming from different capitals has led much of the building supply chain to close down which will now bring construction to a grinding halt anyhow for lack of materials – one local firm closed then re-opened and may be closing again. The Chancellor is under extra pressure to bail out the self-employed.

This ruckus over building sites exposes the fault line running through British politics. Capitalists like Boris Johnson see the critical importance of the building industry to the wider economy. Socialists like Nicola Sturgeon and Sadiq Khan assume that the Big State has taken over and will always have a magic money tree to shake.

But it is vital that the former view prevails to ensure a swift recovery. It takes robust leadership in times of national emergency for politicians to tell people to go to work when their families are telling them to stay at home, especially when they have already stopped once. But they must all pull together in all four nations to make sure that any lay-off is as short as possible. Testing will be key to getting those who test clear back on site as soon as possible. We can’t build our way out of recession if we have no builders.