When Boris Johnson addressed the nation for a second televised address on May 10 it was clear the UK was entering a new phase in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A subtle change of messaging was unveiled, emphasising the need to “stay alert” and “control the virus”, while the government outlined a “conditional plan” to reopen society and the economy. A new Covid Alert System with five levels is now governing how quickly lockdown restrictions could be eased.

Crucially, the prime minister said people who could not work from home should return to the workplace – but avoid public transport.

Construction and manufacturing were cited as examples of the sorts of industries where restarting would now be explicitly encouraged.

For the timber and wood product industries, construction is a key driver of demand and builders returning to site will be a welcome sign that should herald more demand for products.

A steady stream of announcements in recent weeks have seen national housebuilders set out their plans to re-open building sites.

Taylor Wimpey began a phased reopening of its construction sites in England and Wales, beginning on May 4 after enacting clear plans and processes for its workers to operate safely.

The first subcontractors were due to return the week commencing May 11.

Redrow said it was confident safe working on its construction sites could be operated and would start opening a number of its sites from the week of May 11, with a phased return to construction on May 18. And Persimmon has also announced a phased return to work.

“While construction was deemed a permitted activity by the UK government, we believed that it was essential to be confident that we could modify our working practices to adhere to strict social distancing guidance and this required time and careful planning,” Taylor Wimpey said.

“We are now confident that we have a clear set of detailed protocols and revised guidelines which we can operate safely, and on a sustainable basis for as long as is necessary. These protocols include a fully revised set of working practices and additional precautionary measures including modified site operational practices, revised risk assessments, inductions, and changes to site format, including bespoke PPE for two-person tasks which we have designed in-house.”

The site re-openings will not apply to its Scottish business until a return to construction receives the Scottish government’s support.

Sales centres, show homes and regional offices have remain closed, but the prime minister’s statement on May 10 is now also seeing a change in this respect. The removal of the restriction on non-essential home moves and supporting the return of activities related to the sale and purchase of homes is acting as a big green light.

From May 22, Taylor Wimpey will be reopening its sales offices and show homes, initially for pre-booked appointments and with strict social distancing measures in place. We have to exercise some caution, because while these things are clearly positive no-one is saying we are out of the woods yet.

Speaking to people in the structural timber sector it’s clear that while builders returning to site is welcome, and activity levels down the supply chain should rise as a result, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is now suddenly OK.

Some say the return to construction sites doesn’t mean a return to normal, but may lead to something like 60-70% housebuilder activity levels, with perhaps a focus on finishing existing projects.

The re-opening of housebuilder sales centres is a key factor and everyone will be watching to see what consumer demand for purchasing a new house is like in the coming weeks and months.

“The next two months will be key,” one structural timber systems supplier told TTJ. One encouraging fact that came to light in the housebuilders’ recent trading updates was that new house sales have been continuing to outpace the number of cancellations.

Taylor Wimpey said house purchase cancellations have represented less than 1% of the total order book since it closed its sites and sales office from March 24.

Its order book as at week ending April 19 stood at approximately £2.67bn (2019 week 16: £2.39bn).

Persimmon has reported continued good levels of customer enquiries, “providing encouragement with regards to the resilience of demand for good quality newly built homes at attractive prices across the UK”.

In the six weeks ended April 26, the Group secured 962 gross private sales reservations, with a total of 948 legal completions being made in the same period.

New TTF Report

New reports by the Confederation of Timber Industries (CTI) – and the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) show that most timber sector companies are re-opening operations in May and readying to support a return to construction.

A survey of TTF members, which attracted 54 responses, also showed that garden products and plywood were product categories identified as having shortages. Compared to last year, respondents’ sales fell 33% in March and by 66% in April, while 69% report their cash flow has decreased significantly.

Encouragingly, around 40% of members say that if restrictions are lifted they could return to normal sales in the next three months, with 9% of these saying they could do so in less than a month.

The overwhelming majority (97%) said they could implement safe site operating procedures either partially (27%) or fully (70%) in their business, with growth in demand being the number one factor for deciding to reopen businesses, followed closely by specific advice from government.

Key risks in the supply chain include ‘unfair’ payments, difficulty of transporting timber to sites, and being unable to source from suppliers.

Some 85% of respondents are accessing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, 56% have contacted HMRC about deferring tax, and 45% have contacted their bank about accessing the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans.

“While there is rightly a health first focus, it is important that the economy, and the construction industry, finds ways to safely reopen,” said David Hopkins, TTF CEO.

“Fortunately, there has been a collective effort across the industry to pave a way out of the crisis and find new ways of operating.

“It’s clear from this survey that there is no shortage of stock within the supply chain, and that traders are ready to re-start operations as soon as the manufacturing and construction sites they serve also start operations. It is important that all businesses maintain communications up and down their supply chains to ensure a smooth re-start of business across the country just as soon as it is safe to do so.”

“As the UK emerges from this crisis, we will be calling on the government to inject stimulus into sustainable construction, with timber a key part of an emergent green economy.

“By working together and maintaining clear lines of communication, we are confident of the ability of the timber supply chain to weather the crisis.”

Timber Industry Operating Capacity Rises

Egger UK is among companies in recent days to announce a return to production. “Preparations are under way to safely restart production, in a limited capacity, at our Hexham plant on Monday May 11,” said Andrew Sanderson, plant manager, Egger UK.

“We have maintained supply to our customers on the ‘essential’ government list throughout the crisis, and have seen a number of our customers partially opening or proposing to re-open in the coming weeks. We are, of course, keen to support them in doing this.

“Employees involved in the main production operations at Hexham have been informed and taken off the furlough scheme.” Meanwhile, International Timber has used the time since the original closure of its sites to assess how best to safely serve its customer base. Having introduced new health and safety procedures at its manufacturing sites, including social distancing, new cleaning regimes and PPE, it was beginning a phased re-opening of production sites from May 4.

Initially, it will operate at a reduced production capacity, but as customer demand increases, it will carefully increase capacities and, in time, return to more typical lead-times.

Norbord also declared that it was back in business and sales teams were ready to supply product again.