Coronavirus - working through the pandemic

Clay Technology magazine
15 May 2020

As the virus spread throughout the UK, construction sites and manufacturing plants were forced to shut down. As some companies begin to reopen for business, Clay Technology gathers a range of perspectives on what the industry needs to make a full recovery. 

Construction in the UK had come to a grinding halt due to COVID-19, with building sites closing and production stopped across the country causing major delays to projects and contracts. 

The UK construction industry was already experiencing a slowdown in activity, falling by 1.7% in February according to the Office of National Statistics due to a decrease in private housing by 5.6%. McBains, a UK property and construction consultancy, had expressed concern in regards to these figures, stating that they were a ‘worrying sign of sluggishness in the sector with nothing to fall back on through the pandemic’. 

Several manufacturing companies, however, have recommenced production following temporary suspensions over March and April. After four weeks of closing, Michelmersh, for example, reopened its five UK brickworks at the end of April, conducting an ‘orderly and safe recommencement of production across its plants’, using government guidelines to keep staff safe. On 27 April, Ibstock resumed production, with the aim of implementing safety measures to bring staff back into the workplace. According to Ibstock, this will resume its support of the UK construction industry and meet increased demand. Two of the UK’s biggest housebuilders, Persimmon and Vistry, formerly Bovid, also reopened sites on the same day. 

At the time of going to press, Wienerberger announced it was entering ‘a phased reopening of our manufacturing facilities, governed largely by the rate of growth in demand from our customers balanced by our inventory levels on a site-by-site basis’. This follows a review of working practices and plant layouts. See p7 for an update from Forterra.

To protect workers and the industry during temporary closures, many manufacturing companies have implemented safeguarding measures, preparing to reopen construction contracts. Clay Technology quizzed professionals across industry on the challenges and solutions in the path to recovery.

Perspective from Andy Carp, Director, Resource UK and Chairman of IOM3 International Clay Technology Association (ICTa) 

From our perspective, there have been good examples of heavy clay product manufacturers looking after their employees, such as paying more than the 80% UK Government furlough payment, and offering mental health wellbeing schemes and training. Most companies have also contributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS and care sector.

Most companies are prepared to restart with kilns reduced to a low temperature rather than being switched off completely. There may still be some issues following restart if machinery has not been maintained well during the shutdown, but most have a skeleton engineering staff doing this.

Capital projects at several factories are on hold, with most contracts being with European companies. It is hoped that as countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain appear to be emerging from restrictions ahead of the UK, suppliers will be in a position to send staff to complete these projects as soon as the green light is given here in the UK.

While manufacturers will suffer some hardship due to the pandemic, suppliers will also. Some may need help from manufacturers to get back to full capacity when required. The whole supply chain is affected from construction companies, through to manufacturers, suppliers of machinery, raw materials and so forth. Suppliers will have a key role to play in getting the industry back to work at full capacity as quickly as possible. 

Training and development

In terms of training, there is likely to be more online distance learning with greater use of IT. ICTa courses are already provided by distance learning, and we have been moving in this direction for some time. For example, the Level 2 Technical Award in Clay Technology will soon be delivered and marked completely online. 

Tutorials and meetings will be increasingly carried out using programmes like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, saving time and fuel in travelling. There is an opportunity to deliver more courses which our Education and Training Committee is working on. More contributors are currently needed to prepare course materials.

Clear instruction

When the time comes for production to restart, we will need clear instruction, not advice, from the UK Government. A clear statement by Business Minister Nadim Zahawi clarified that construction was included in the list of key workers. This was followed by a similar statement from the Construction Leadership Council, but Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and London Mayor Sadiq Khan publicly disagreed. 

Some construction is unarguably vital – work on hospitals and other medical and care facilities, and work to get people affected earlier this year by flooding back into their homes are just a few examples. One by one construction sites and builders’ merchants across the country started to close. There are many examples of the public perception that construction is not a key industry and should not be working, such as #shutthesites which trended on social media. For this opposition to be overcome quickly, the message needs to be clear and unequivocal from government that construction sites, builders’ merchants and construction product manufacturers must reopen, when and under what conditions. Confirmation of key infrastructure projects such as HS2 sends out a positive message that the hoped for rebound in activity will return later this year.

The heavy clay sector has faced many challenges and has emerged successfully. There will be changes, not least in ways of working, but these will be in the main positive and to be welcomed. ICTa stands ready to play its part.

Perspective from Tom Farmer, Marketing Manager, Brick Development Association (BDA) 

On 24th March, the BDA, which represents 99% of the UK’s clay brick manufacturing industry, released a statement to inform the construction supply chain that the domestic supply of bricks – some 80% of all 2.4bln bricks used each year in the UK’s built environment – would likely slow and even temporarily cease. 

The focus of the release was on the ‘safe and orderly manner’ in which the shutdown process would take place. The objective of the individual manufacturers, who had each independently taken this decision, was to safeguard the health, safety and wellbeing of their teams as well as to protect their facilities.

Such a decision is never taken lightly, particularly in an industry with a broad range of stakeholders and of such economic importance to the nation. Nor is this the first time that brick manufacturers have responded decisively to a rapidly changing environment. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, demand remained suppressed for some time by construction, reflected by the loss of capacity experienced by the manufacturing sector. It was not until the house building sector was stimulated by the introduction of the then UK Government’s Help to Buy scheme in 2013, that demand suddenly increased.

Business unusual

Since then, UK clay brick manufacturers have invested £250mln in plant and machinery, increasing manufacturing capacity through new and improved facilities. A further £140mln investment has been announced for the next three years in expansion and updates that will further increase production. Demand exceeded domestic supply and UK manufacturers have continued to rise to the challenge. Production by 2019 year-end was the highest seen since 2007, well in excess of two billion bricks annually and stock levels remain at a three-year high. The brick business has been very, very good. So, why suspend production when some construction continues?

Appropriate safeguarding measures, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate social and work-related distancing protocols, were already in place across UK brick manufacturing facilities. However, the instruction from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was that only ‘essential’ services be kept open for business. In the context, the manufacture of clay brick cannot be considered an ‘essential’ service.

There are some continuing building works, such as expanded medical care facilities that may be required to deal with the evolving pandemic. There are some continuing maintenance works, vital to ensure the safety of the public and the safe operation of essential public services. There are also some 400mln bricks currently in stock in the UK, which is sufficient to feed demand for the anticipated period of closure. Individual manufacturers continue to report strong inventories, which means that deliveries have continued and orders are being fulfilled. This approach is mirrored in parts of the merchant route-to-market with essential deliveries reportedly still taking place. Brick manufacturers are also continuing to supply those services that are ‘essential’.

Importantly, where safe to do so, individual manufacturers have also reported maintaining skeleton staff at production facilities to preserve kiln conditions, ensuring that production can resume quickly and efficiently. Estimates range between three and seven days for kilns to be back in full production. UK manufacturers are doing everything they can to safely and responsibly supply their market, in line with government guidance.

Lack of clarity

The absence of consistency across manufacturing and construction industries stems from the lack of clarity in government communications, specifically, a definition of what is ‘essential’. The issue is compounded by the slow response to the needs of those who are self-employed and account for 41% of construction workers. In the absence of any appropriate package of support, people who work in construction will continue to risk their health by working on ‘non-essential’ projects, because it is ‘essential’ to their ability to keep a roof over their head and feed their family. The measures that have been announced by government at the time of writing, are alarming in their lack of urgency. 
Guidance for site-operating procedures has been published by the UK Construction Leadership Council, which helps to provide firms with practical steps they can take to minimise risk. However, these are to be implemented in sites that should remain operational, the definition of which remains unclear.

UK brick manufacturers will continue to act in the safe and orderly manner they have so far, demonstrating decisiveness and leadership. With healthy inventories and an incredibly well-established supply chain, the industry is primed to gear up deliveries and resume production as soon as it is safe to do so.

In line with government advice on COVID-19, the BDA Board has cancelled the Brick Awards this year. Instead, the next competition will launch in 2021 with further details to be released.

Perspective from Laura Cohen, Chief Executive of the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC) 

The ceramic manufacturing sector, like many other sectors, is facing huge challenges with much reduced customer demand through the current Coronavirus pandemic. Employee safety is essential, so we are sharing good practice across the sector.
Several larger companies, mainly in the tableware sector, have chosen to extend planned shutdowns and furlough staff because their customer demand has been severely reduced due to closures in the hospitality industry. Others, such as brick, after a shorter shutdown are now phasing in restarts.

Some companies in other parts of the ceramic sector where there is strong customer demand, or where demand is now picking up, are manufacturing in line with social distancing guidelines. We are aware of several brick manufacturers, for example, who have briefly stopped their manufacturing operations but are now returning to work, ensuring health and safety guidance is followed to protect workers.
Through our regular dialogue with government and other organisations, BCC is working hard to support our members in accessing all the help that is available to get them through these challenging times by hosting regular conference calls with government and member companies, and publishing frequent updates on our website.

Q+A with Stephen Harrison, Chief Executive, Forterra 

What level of disruption have you experienced during the lockdown? 

Clearly, as housebuilding has slowed, demand for blocks and bricks has dried up. We have closed our manufacturing facilities and are doing everything we can to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our employees in line with government guidance.  
Fortunately, inventory levels across all products remain strong, so essential orders continue to be fulfilled whilst of course adhering to social distancing guidelines. We have put in place stringent delivery practices, including one driver per lorry using our own fleet to protect both our employees and our customers. 

This means that while there has been major disruption as a result of the pandemic, we have been sufficiently able to safeguard our people and adapt our operations so that we can remain confident in the security of supply for the future.

What has been the key business challenge so far? 

The key challenge has been judging when to reopen and at what level of capacity. Engagement and close dialogue with our customers enabled us to work this through, as well as extensive planning in terms of our working practices and health and safety measures.

Are there any useful lessons to be learnt yet for the heavy clay and wider industries? If so, what are they? 

We have remained committed to our suppliers by paying invoices in full. However, sadly, this is not something we have witnessed across the board. While there is a need to protect your business, keeping cash flowing through the economy is just as crucial.

Has there has been enough government support and information for businesses of all sizes operating in the brick, heavy clay and construction industry?

The support from the UK Government has been fantastic and we are utilising the job retention scheme. The only criticism would be in the clarity of communication. 

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson was shouting ‘stay at home’, there were whispers from other ministers that it was OK to keep going. The question of what is ‘essential’ is still quite a grey area.

What challenges and opportunities do you see once restrictions are lifted? And, what factors could affect the recovery from a heavy clay products perspective?

The business has been planning alternative working practices that enable manufacturing to recommence while keeping staff safe and able to socially distance. Brick production can commence in five to seven days and Thermalite within two days, and we restarted work at Desford and Swadlincote week commencing 27th April. We expect that this will be followed by the reopening of two more plants in May. Due to the current high inventory levels, it is anticipated that the majority of plants will reopen during June and July.

If the industry is able to do the same with new operating practices, then the housebuilding sector should also be able to recover swiftly.  This move means that we are able to support our housebuilder customers as they also begin the process of returning to work over the coming days and weeks, ramping up our production as and when inventory and demand from the market requires. This return to business is encouraging and we must all adjust to new ways of working that ensure the safety of our staff and our customers and the continued success of our industry. 

Do you foresee a change in the way you deliver training or the type of training you will need in the future?  
We already offer continuing professional development for our products via online tools and this is an area we will certainly expand on in the future. But it is not just training that will need to be reviewed. This pandemic should, and will, change how we do business more generally. 
Using technology, in the way we are having to presently, will be good for productivity, save on travel costs and be hugely beneficial for people’s health, safety and wellbeing. We must take the cue. Now is the time to learn how to do business differently.

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