Inside Housing reported on Mr Jenrick’s comments in response to questions from shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury, who had asked ‘what is being done for residents’ who are having to pay for waking watches in buildings that are clad in combustible cladding Mr Jenrick outlined that he had asked Stephen Greenhalgh, minister for building safety and communities, to ‘investigate measures’, after Mr Amesbury reminded him that he had ‘promised to investigate the issue’.

Earlier this month, it was reported via a freedom of information request that over 420 buildings across England are protected by waking watches, with over 300 fires occurring in these since June 2017. The data was collated from responses from 40 of the UK’s 50 fire authorities, with London having 289 or 68% of the affected buildings, and London Fire Brigade having responded to 263 fires in these since Grenfell.

While waking watches are supposed to be temporary measures, some have been in place for years, and some back to June 2017, with concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could extend their use. In turn, 34 councils had spent £29.4m on waking watches at 134 buildings, with the largest bill, £10.2m, paid by Camden Council for cover at nine high rises from June 2017 to December 2019.

The costs for such watches privately owned buildings are being met by leaseholders as well as bills for cladding removal and increased insurance premiums, and it was also reported earlier this month that residents of The Circle development in Liverpool had been told by the building management company that due to the pandemic, they will ‘have to take over’ the waking watch despite already paying for it as part of their service charge.

Mr Amesbury had asked: ‘Hundreds of thousands of tenants and leaseholders are still living in unsafe buildings. This of course, as the secretary of state will know, is a double whammy for people in the lockdown: stuck in buildings covered with flammable materials and some out of work, having to pay expensive waking watch fees.

‘On the call with the M9 mayors, I understand that the secretary of state said he would look into financial support from the government for the cost for waking watch and other interim fire safety measures. Has this been done and what was the outcome?’

Mr Jenrick added: ‘I’ve asked the noble Lord Greenhalgh, the new minister for building safety, to look into this and what we can do to reduce the cost of waking watch for members of the public in this position, and to ensure that waking watches where they are required can continue, despite the lockdown.’

Late last month meanwhile, the National Fire Chiefs Council updated its advice for building owners and landlords on operating waking watches during the pandemic, specifically on ‘how to operate’ waking watches, and outlining steps ‘to ensure that buildings are kept safe in the coming months’. Landlords should ensure waking watch operatives ‘adhere to Public Health England’s social distancing rules’, and consider installing communal fire alarms if staff numbers fall due to isolation.

In turn, it stated that the pandemic will result in ‘higher occupancy and vulnerability’ due to people, including potentially infected individuals, ‘staying at home for longer periods of time’, meaning that maintaining a waking watch in an at risk building ‘would be more essential than ever’. Its advice has always maintained that waking watches should be temporary measures ‘until dangerous materials are removed from a building’, but the ‘slow pace’ of cladding removal has seen some in place for years, at high cost to leaseholders.

The NFCC advice stated: ‘If, due to coronavirus, there are challenges maintaining waking watch coverage, those responsible will need to implement suitable alternative interim arrangements. Dependency on numbers of staff can be reduced through the installation of a common fire alarm. Competent persons, RPs [registered providers] and fire safety officers should familiarise themselves with the social distancing guidance from Public Health England, to ascertain how this might be applied to enable waking watches to remain in place.’

Its update also advised fire and rescue services (FRSs) to take a ‘balanced approach’ to fire safety for each property, as well as supporting building owners ‘by recognising potentially higher public health risks in buildings from the threat of coronavirus’. However, it maintained that it is still the duty of FRSs to enforce the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 ‘even in these difficult times’.