Tens of thousands of workers in New Zealand's $60 billion-a-year construction and infrastructure sectors could return later next week if the level 4 alert status is reduced to level 3, according to two sector leaders.
Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones and chairman of Crown Infrastructure Partners Ltd Mark Binns both said today they hope for resumption of works nationally on sites by Thursday next week.
But special measures were expected to be put in place to safeguard workers and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters says many businesses could reopen under level 3.
Cabinet is to decide on Monday when to move from level 4 to level 3 and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her daily briefing has today named construction as a sector able to operate again when level 3 is introduced.
"You must work from home if you can. If you can't because you work in an area like forestry or construction, you can return to your place of work if you apply the health and safety guidelines established for Covid-19".
Jones said today he hopes for a quick resumption of work.
"The mātua is hoping for a mega-comeback," he said this morning of the sector where annual infrastructure works are $40b, residential $13b and commercial $7.5b.
"The state can't keep running everything. We don't want to be in an economic coma. We need to jump-start the economy as fast as possible."
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Jones received numerous calls from trades and construction sector people, pleading to return: "They are insisting they can operate safely on level 3 alert."
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Binns, leading the Government initiative to get numerous $10m+ infrastructure projects ready, said: "All construction companies are itching to get back to work. They're very innovative and they'll find ways to comply to make their workplaces safe."
Workers staying 2m apart from each other, wearing masks and gloves, using hand sanitisers, and perhaps being asked to stay for longer on sites where jobs would take longer were some aspects he forecast.
"There'll be more cleaning of smoko rooms, with disinfectant, cycling people going into smoko, toilets and taps more thoroughly cleaned. Construction companies might ask people to work longer hours because jobs might be slowed down but they're smart, they'll find ways to cope," Binns said.
But he forecast that about 1800 people on Fletcher Construction's Commercial Bay project in Auckland would be cut back. Far fewer people would be on sites and jobs would take longer to finish, he said.
Around 1600 had been on the NZ International Convention Centre site and he said again, numbers could well be lower.
Binns said he had talked to Fletcher Construction chief Peter Reidy yesterday to discuss the return to work possibilities.
Apprenticeships were a key to longer-term growth in the sector and he doesn't want to see a repeat of the situation in the 1990s when the construction sector turned down and many Kiwis moved to Australia.
Government support was a key to avoiding that, he said.
Crown Infrastructure Partners Ltd had received more than 1700 applications for many jobs ready to begin and a report on those will go to the Government around the middle of next month, he said. Priority would be given to public works such as schools, libraries and hospitals and jobs able to start in six to 12 months, Binns said.
Ardern said New Zealanders should still expect big restrictions on their interactions with other people when the country moves to alert level 3. She told Chris Lynch on Newstalk ZB that it still wasn't known exactly when New Zealand would move down from its current level 4 to the lower level.
"One thing I will just flag is that at that level, because of the risk we are trying to combat, there will still be significant restrictions on your interactions with other people. If you think about the need to keep doing that, you'll get a better idea of what life will still be like. But it will be different to level 4," she said.
Binns said the entity he headed had been asked to prepare a list of truly "shovel ready" infrastructure projects that could be awarded immediately on remobilisation of the industry.
"In addition, we have been asked to identify what changes would be required, under urgency, to existing laws and processes to overcome any remaining obstacles to project start dates. We are inviting industry participants, consultants, local bodies and other assets owners who have projects that fit the following criteria to provide us with a list for consideration," he said late last month.
Projects would need to meet the following general criteria:
• "Be truly ready for construction. We will only consider projects that are ready now or within a realistic six months. We will use our engineering adviser to form a very quick view on this and we will not progress anything at this point that falls outside this criteria;
• "Be of an infrastructure nature. This does not necessarily mean just horizontal projects - roads, bridges, water - and would include schools, hospitals etc. It could also include private sector projects that could be repurposed for the public benefit. We would not consider anything that was just for the benefit of private sector owners;
• "Is itself or as a package of similar projects, of a significant size, so that employment benefits for workers, either directly or as part of the New Zealand-based supply chain, is material. We will consider smaller projects in regions where projects are usually smaller, as we seek to get reasonable regional representation. However, given resource constraints it is unlikely that we would consider anything less than $10m even in the smallest region;
• "Brings real value in an economic or social sense to New Zealand as a whole or the region in which it is located. The idea of building bridges to nowhere is not appealing."