Major names in British car manufacturing, construction and retail have announced plans to return to work in tentative signs that businesses are preparing to kickstart an economy paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Carmakers Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin joined Taylor Wimpey in announcing they would restart work with social distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The DIY retailer B&Q opened 80 sites on Thursday, taking its total this week to 155 as it rolled back the blanket closure of its estate last month.
Vast numbers of companies across the UK have stopped operations during the pandemic, but with no end in sight for physical distancing rules, companies have been forced to consider new ways of working.
Jaguar Land Rover, the UK’s biggest carmaker, plans to gradually reopen some factories on 18 May. The company’s Solihull plant, which employs 9,000 workers making its Range Rover models, will reopen with a quarter of its workers at first, alongside SUV plants in Slovakia and Austria. This month Vauxhall said it was ready to reopen its Ellesmere Port site on the Wirral after setting out socially distanced production lines, break areas and restrooms.
“We are developing robust protocol and guidelines to support a safe return to work,” said JLR. “We will adopt strict social distancing measures across our business and are currently evaluating a number of different measures to ensure we protect and reassure our workforce when they begin to return to work.”
Aston Martin Lagonda said it would reopen its factory in St Athan, south Wales, on 5 May with new safety measures similar to those planned by Vauxhall. The carmaker hopes to ramp up production of its new sports utility vehicle, the DBX. The new car is crucial to reviving the fortunes of the company, recently bailed out by a consortium led by a billionaire investor.
Its chief executive, Andy Palmer, and board members also said they would take a voluntary 35% pay cut. The pay of other executives at the company will fall by 20%, in line with the reduction for workers furloughed under the government’s job retention scheme.
B&Q has gradually reopened just over half its stores this week and could open more next week after introducing a number of safety measures.
The DIY chain is classed as an essential retailer under the government’s high street lockdown rules but nevertheless closed stores last month. However, it has now reopened 155 outlets, following the example of supermarkets by limiting the number of customers in stores at any one time, switching to card-only payments and installing perspex screens at checkouts to shield staff.
“Having watched other essential retailers support social distancing in their stores, we are now following their best practice and are re-opening some stores with strict social distancing measures in place,” said a B&Q spokesperson.
Supermarkets, deemed essential retailers by the government, have stayed open with measures including 2-metre markers on shop floors and protective screens for checkout staff.
Taylor Wimpey and Vistry, formerly known as Bovis, also announced plans on Thursday to start building again. Vistry said it would resume building homes on Monday, while the first Taylor Wimpey workers will return on 4 May.
While Taylor Wimpey has drawn up a Covid-19 code of conduct to which all staff, subcontractors and suppliers have to sign up, many construction workers have taken to social media to complain of unsafe working conditions. They say the 2-metre physical distancing rule is almost impossible to adhere to on building sites and in work canteens.
To try to allay these concerns, Taylor Wimpey said it had designed and started manufacturing a bespoke face shield, which will attach to a construction hard hat and will be used on all its sites for two-person tasks.
Pete Redfern, Taylor Wimpey’s chief executive, said: “We are now confident that we have clear plans and processes in place so we can safely start back on site in a phased way beginning on 4 May.”
The construction firm Mace started reopening some of its 90 sites in early April after a two-week shutdown, and the French firm Bouygues said earlier this week that it would restart construction in the UK “progressively”.
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