Recently, the government wrote to stakeholders to update them on removing and replacing combustible cladding on high rise residential buildings, having also recently announced £1bn in funding for non aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding removal in the wake of the recent government updates on its consultations and plans for increased fire safety.

Earlier this month, it reiterated its support for cladding removal to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic after a number of removal programmes were paused, while also expanding its cladding removal team.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick pledged in an announcement to ‘ensure vital building safety improvements continue’ during the pandemic, and made this pledge alongside Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester; Dan Jarvis, mayor of the Sheffield city region; Peter John, the chair of London Councils; Sadiq Khan, mayor of London; Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool city region; and Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands.

The ‘essential safety work’ will continue so as to ‘ensure the safety of those living in high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding or insufficient fire safety measures’, and prioritise these sites ‘where necessary social distancing rules are being followed’. This pledge ‘sets out a commitment to improving the safety of residential blocks whilst also ensuring those working on site are given clear information and support to guarantee their own safety as well as limiting the spread’ of the virus.

A series of nationwide sites ‘have been leading the way’, adapting procedures such as adding decontamination areas on site ‘enabling workers to hose down overalls before safe disposal’, and providing additional toilet and washing facilities, thereby ‘reducing the number of workers gathering together’. Work teams have also been split up ‘with a view to minimising the risk of infection’.

Mr Jenrick commented: ‘The government is bringing about the biggest change in building safety in a generation. The new building safety regime will put residents’ safety at its heart and follows the announcement of the unprecedented £1 billion fund for removing unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings in the Budget.

‘However, I have been deeply concerned that vital building safety work has significantly slowed down as a result of the pandemic. I have been clear that work must resume to ensure the safety of residents living in buildings with unsafe cladding or with insufficient fire safety measures, and it is entirely possible for this work to be done safely within health guidelines.

‘I brought together Mayors and local leaders to find a solution. The agreement that I have reached with them will ensure those working on these vital repair projects can continue to do so safely.’

Specific guidance has been provided to sectors on applying social distancing in workplaces, including for construction workers, statin that ‘work on-site can continue if done in accordance with the social distancing guidelines wherever possible’.

The Construction Index reported however on Vivalda Group chairman and majority shareholder Peter Johnson’s response to criticism from Mr Jenrick of the cladding sector’s ‘performance’ during the pandemic, with the firm ‘the UK’s largest independent supplier and fabricator of cladding and façade systems’. Mr Johnson said resuming work ‘wasn’t quite that simple’, having opted to shut down all work during the crisis, with the site stating Mr Jenrick’s words ‘failed to convince him he is wrong’.

Mr Johnson commented: ‘While we all agree that all Grenfell-style cladding needs to be removed and replaced as soon as possible, calls from those in power to simply “get on with it” reflect a failure to appreciate the various practical challenges facing the construction supply chain at this time. As a supplier of non-flammable cladding to more than 70 projects across the UK, we would be only too delighted to recommence operations; however a lack of political direction, muddled communication and disjointed decision making has created a confusing and contradictory situation for suppliers, contractors and project managers alike.

‘On one hand, we’re now being urged to mobilise people to restart recladding sites while on the other we see daily pictures of passengers crammed into tube trains and buses. This presents any responsible employer with a real dilemma – start working on replacing faulty cladding or place your own people at risk on public transport where those on board cannot possibly conform to social distancing guidelines?

‘It’s a huge dilemma. And to be honest, without assurance that workers can get to site safely, I’d not be happy sending my people out to work. Furthermore, ministers and mayors alike need to appreciate that recommencing the replacement of dangerous cladding cannot be done with the flick of a switch.

‘Most sites closed after bowing to government pressure, leaving my company with no choice but to furlough hugely knowledgeable staff. Now we’re facing criticism for failing to continue working on these important projects. Without clarity and consistency on this important matter, the industry is faced with a non-win situation.’