Covid 19 coronavirus: Construction sites grind to halt, billion-dollar projects on hold

Tens of thousands of workers in the already stretched multi-billion dollar construction sector are home today as their industry pulls up sharp with all except essential work halted by alert level 4.

One construction company’s plans to lift worker vaccination 70 per cent have been temporarily delayed although its chief has vowed to continue when staff can once again access vaccination centres again.

Shane Brealey, a director of residential specialist NZ Living, said the sudden Covid outbreak and Government announcement had taken an immediate toll on his sector, with all work stopped.

His company is planning to lift worker vaccination rates from a quarter to nearly three-quarters and although that was now being delayed, Brealey said it would continue as soon as possible to help protect the most number of workers.

“We have about 25 per cent of our workforce vaccinated and had plans this week to lift that to 70 per cent with first jab.Our teams were being transported to local centres and getting vaccinated en masse.We will pick this up again next week hopefully,” Brealey said today.

NZ Living is aiming to ease Auckland’s housing shortage by building hundreds of KiwiBuild and affordable homes.

It has about 100 workers on sites in Glen Innes and another 60 in the Northcote area.

“We have 57 homes just completed, 204 under construction and another 132 starting in October. Hopefully the lockdown will be short and effective,” Brealey said.

“Given this afternoon’s news that there is a new community Covid case in Auckland, it’s a good time to refresh ourselves with what any future lockdowns could mean to our sites. We’ve had a great run of over six months without any community cases or restrictions but let’s not assume it will go on forever. Here’s a reminder of what we need to do in the event we do have any lockdowns,” NZ Living workers were told.

Alert level 4 means sites will remain closed, with the only rare exception if “urgent works were required to protect life or property”.

Under alert level 3, construction workers can return but with strict protocols including signing into sites via QR codes and cleaning, handwashing, facemask protocols.

Fletcher Building chief executive Ross Taylor told a media briefing this morning that the company employed about 9000 people in New Zealand. All up, it has 14,500 staff.

Around 2000 of those staff are with Fletcher Construction, although not all would be on sites because some would be in what he referred to as “supporting” roles.

“None of our workforce can be on-site,” Taylor said referring to contractors who must stop all work on jobs including the $750m NZ International Convention Centre.

Fletcher earns 48 per cent of its revenue in New Zealand from the residential sector where it is building hundreds of homes, apartments and retirement village units.

“We hope it will be shorter rather than longer,” Taylor said of the alert level 4 lockdown, planned at this stage to last seven days.

Sean Sweeney, City Rail Link chief executive, said today no work would take place on that $4.4b project for seven days.

“Our immediate priority is ensuring the safety of our people and the security of our sites,” he said.

“Our construction sites look very different now compared with the lockdown periods last year. We are using a lot of heavy machinery to build the stations and tunnels. We will make sure that appropriate measures are put in place to keep each site and the surrounding areas safe for our teams and for our neighbours,” Sweeney said.

Many project staff were able to continue working from home and would do so as the shutdown continues. A small number of people will also remain at CRL sites to inspect and maintain structures, plant and equipment to ensure the safety and security of the works, he said.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that we are well placed to come out of the blocks very fast when the restart call is given,” Sweeney said.

Major builder CMP Construction has 12 sites shut as of this morning.

Andrew Moore, commercial manager of the Victoria Park-headquartered business, said
that in last year’s lockdown, the company had three days to prepare and secure its sites, and make them safe.

“But with this lockdown, we didn’t really have any notice at all. We have largely left them as we would have done if it was a normal working week. We are sending one staff member per project to secure the sites the best we can from a security and weather perspective,” he said.

CMP Is also engaging security guards to protect its sites.

“We never had any security issues in last year’s lockdown. We are more concerned about weather – last year’s lockdowns weather was very good. This lockdown is in the middle of winter. Rain and wind are our biggest enemies, especially projects that are over 50 per cent complete where we have started interior fitout works,” Moore said.

Kelvin Davidson, CoreLogic chief property economist, said the construction sector had been running at full capacity and pressures have been emerging for several months now.

The CoreLogic Cordell Housing Price Index showed a rise in costs.

“There have been reports of labour shortages in housing construction as well as stress on supply chains and availability of materials, and these are now starting to flow through more clearly to the prices that builders are having to charge their clients,” Davidson said.

“Where some suppliers had previously absorbed cost increases or substituted materials where possible, we are now seeing the costs passed on to the consumer,” he said.

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