"Let’s start looking to the future”

In his latest blog, ICE President Paul Sheffield says that amid the current Covid-19 health crisis, it’s important for our industry to look to the future to try and prepare for the economic recovery when it comes.

ICE President Paul Sheffield
ICE President Paul Sheffield

With such unusual events unfolding around us today we could easily fall into the trap of spending 90% of our business focus on COVID-19 and its effects on our businesses. It is critically important for us all that we quickly put this into an active risk management work stream so that we can spend 70% of our time taking care of our usual business, staff and customers and looking to the future.

At the start of the year, when we first heard of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, it appeared to most of us that it was something happening in a distant world and I doubt whether many people - other than a small number of specialists - conceived of the impact it would have on society and global trade. It first hit Northern Europe only six weeks ago and yet in that time we have all been consumed by its rapid spread and a realisation about how social we are as human beings.

We take so many things for granted - whether that is going to work or to watch a rugby game, going to the theatre, cinema or a restaurant. Within a very small number of days we find millions of people out of work, businesses struggling for survival and governments being forced to come up with unprecedented support packages to keep their economies alive.

Watch Paul's most recent video blog on the crisis below

One thing is certain - for those of us who have needed to and have been able to continue with work - we are no doubt doing it in a very different way than we were before. The fact that people of all echelons of the business world are forced to work from home and spend hours per day on conference calls and video calls and are being trusted to get on with their day job - must surely mean that when all this ends, there will be a quiet revolution in the way the we go back to work. Will everyone need to go to work every day?

Will we all need to travel at the same time each day? Will we think twice about popping out across our town or city for a face-to-face meeting that might otherwise be done via Skype? Will we jump on planes as regularly and easily as we did before - whether for business or leisure?

Will our businesses change their sources of supply to better guarantee continuity should this sort of thing happen again? Will our businesses be ready to carry on where we left off before this crisis - or will their balance sheets be so badly weakened that they take years to recover and can’t afford to invest in technology and robotics?

There are so many of these questions that need to be considered and I am pleased to say that ICE is already looking ahead at some of these with a view to helping BEIS and the Government to try and prepare for the recovery when it comes.

Paul Sheffield
ICE President Paul Sheffield at One Great George Street

I mentioned in my last blog that ICE activities have been cancelled or postponed until early May and of course this date will have to be kept under review - but we have seen a significant increase in traffic visiting the many ICE forums to share and view content and to learn from the many papers and reports that are readily available. We have also now moved all events online and you can still watch an array of informative webinars and lectures online.

The investment we have already put in to making sure this information is available to our members from around the world - not just those who can visit One Great George Street - is paying off.

Regrettably this period of isolation also covers the timing of the next Council meeting (due to have been held on 21 April). Last year Council asked that the focus for the years ahead should be on their role as custodians of knowledge leadership throughout the Institution and a whole year of knowledge events have been planned around the Council agenda.

Whilst we won’t be able to hold Council in April in its normal guise, we are pressing ahead with two items on the Knowledge programme and both will be made available for all members on line. We have Dame Judith Hackitt as part of a panel lined up to discuss the In Plain Sight review published following Grenfell and we have a progress update from Steve Crosskey of the UN to discuss the progress of Enabling Better Infrastructure following its global launch late last year.

Here at the ICE we have done our best to keep you updated on the changing health situation with regular updates and a series of blogs on its effects on the industry. I can assure you that - here in the UK - we are very closely connected to both the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and BuildUK - and have agreed with them that there is little point confusing the clear messages that they are sharing with this industry by creating a separate voice.  We are involved with them and they have our backing - but soon it will be time to look to the future and how we exit this period.

Direct communications with Alok Sharma and Nadhim Zahawi over the last few days have confirmed that they remain very supportive of making sure that the wider construction industry is kept operational - wherever we can ensure safety of our workforce - and they also recognise that our manufacturers and suppliers need to be included in the critical trades that are able to continue working since there is ample evidence that contractors who are trying to maintain activity are running out of supply in a number of areas. This will be very important for any recovery that will come too since it will be much easier to ramp up operations again if they don’t cease entirely right now.

During the our last industry recession following the banking crisis in 2009, there was some well researched data to show that for every £1 spent on construction, the contribution to UK GDP was £2.84, a huge multiplier and that went a long way to help persuade the 2010 coalition Government that investment in infrastructure was good for the nations recovery; I feel the same may well be just as true today.

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