Chris Hallam is a partner at CMS Law
Last month’s opening of the Elizabeth Line has reminded us – such that it was needed – that politicians don’t need to be asked twice to don a hard hat and hi-vis if there’s a photo opportunity in the offing.
It’s play acting, of course, a game of grown-up dressing-up to show they have the ‘common touch’.
Sadly, as the recent publication of Sue Gray’s report into the ‘Partygate’ affair has laid bare, never has the difference between dressing up as a construction worker and actually being one been starker.
Let us cast our minds back to 2020.
It seems a distant memory now, and for most a time to forget, but it was a time when the country was in lockdown and seeing thousands of COVID deaths per week. A time when most people were required to work from home – and for those who were unable to do so, notably construction workers, a time of extreme restrictions in the workplace to ensure the risk of spreading the virus through personal contact was minimised.
We recall the various iterations of the CLC’s Site Operating Procedures with their requirement of staggered entry and exit times to sites, the reduction of numbers on site, strict protocols for hygiene and severe limitations on mixing.
“If only the industry had followed the example set by our lawmakers at Downing Street, then all the laws could have just been ignored, all that additional cost could have been avoided”
In essence, a series of measures that turned a highly sociable industry that relies on human interaction into a significantly solo activity, all to keep the cogs of industry turning and to help prevent the economy crashing.
These measures came at a significant financial cost to the construction industry, to clients and the supply chain alike. Projects were cancelled, turnovers dropped, profits haemorrhaged; some businesses didn’t make it.
Mental health and wellbeing took a hammering as construction workers more used to the rough-and-tumble of site activity struggled to deal with the relative isolation required by the protocols.
If only we’d known. If only the industry had followed the example set by our lawmakers at Downing Street, then all the laws could have just been ignored, all that additional cost could have been avoided – all the personal torment and impact on wellbeing was unnecessary.
Of course, the industry didn’t do that.
The industry followed the laws – not simply because they were the law, although this alone was reason enough for most people, but because of why we had those laws. They were to safeguard public health and minimise the spread of the virus that was killing thousands weekly, relieve the burden on an already overburdened NHS and to help the country climb out of the catastrophic economic impact that the virus was causing. In short, because it was the right thing to do – not just because it was the law.
Lawmakers partied on
The lawmakers, however, did whatever they wanted regardless of the law, and seemingly without any consideration for the impact on public health.
But, of course, the poor loves didn’t know they were breaking their own laws or they were just letting off steam, or they were ambushed by cake or the laws were silly, or any number of mealy-mouthed excuses that would cause the proverbial dog sufficient embarrassment to turn its nose up at a freshly made dish of homework.
We will never know how many people inside and outside Downing Street became ill because of the blatant and persistent law breaking, or how many people died after catching the virus from someone, or a contact of someone, who worked at Downing Street. We will never know if this could have been avoided had the lawmakers simply followed their own laws.
So, what happens next time?
What if a new variant emerges that is more serious or evades the vaccine? What if we are faced with an entirely different pandemic? If the epidemiologists are to be believed, this is more a question of when rather than if.
In that eventuality, why should anybody be expected to comply with any public health measures when the people who create those measures have such a wanton disregard for them? Of course, the construction industry – in common with most people – will comply.
The industry will do the right thing because it is ultimately populated by people who care about their colleagues, their community and their country. People who overwhelmingly are honest, accountable and have respect for the rule of law. Normal people. If only the same could be said for those at Number 10.
Let us hope that whoever may be occupying Downing Street in times to come learns from the last few years so that they, and the construction industry, are better prepared next time.