CFJ EXCLUSIVE: How contractors and floorlayers coped during the fraught days after lockdown

ALONG with strange times on the health and economic front, the weather took a turn for the weird in early 2020. Three successive storms - Ciara, Dennis and Jorge - had battered the UK in February, making it the wettest on record (the previous record was set in February 1990).

During mid-March, just as panic over Covid-19 was increasing, the rain began to dry up over large parts of the UK and the sun shone with a vengeance. By lockdown, several counties in England and Wales were seeing their sunniest March on record. This weather pattern was destined to continue right through April and May in what would turn out to be a spectacular run of fine weather.

In the days and weeks following lockdown, matters weren’t so sunny and clear for many flooring contractors and manufacturers who were wondering how they’d continue to operate successfully with such confused government signalling. For many, the decision was made for them by main contractors who froze their projects, effectively paralysing productivity down the supply chain.

This wasn’t as lethal as it could’ve been given the fact Covid-19 was always, at some point in the not-too-distant future, going to fizzle out. Nonetheless, it required contractors and fitters to make provisions for what was to come.

Some, like John Butler, found they were in a decent position. He quickly determined how much life would cost per month over lockdown after paying unavoidable debts. Because he didn’t have many staff members, John opted not to furlough any and implemented a safety system whereby key staff could still visit the office.

‘The one problem was that the worst of Covid-19 fell over the end of the financial year,’ said John. ‘That meant we were chasing money just as people were trying to hold onto it. But since 1995, I’ve had a no-borrow policy which means we have sufficient reserves to go for a while – probably a year - before we started struggling.’

John pointed out that many contractors were still working in places such as hospitals and schools. ‘As long as fitters can do their jobs in isolation, there’s still business to be had.’

In Cheshire, at Hyde Flooring, managing director Simon Hopkinson closed both his branch offices on Tuesday 24 March. Just prior to the PM’s lockdown announcement the previous day, 95% of the company’s contracts were placed on hold by customers until further notice.

‘A handful of fitters continued to work until the following week within a couple of hospitals, until all essential works had been completed,’ said Simon. ‘We don’t employ subcontract labour, so the loss of work led me to furlough 27 employees within one week of lockdown.’

Two admin staff continued to work from home as March was year-end. ‘One will continue to work from home while I expect the second will soon be furloughed.’

Gareth Lewis, commercial director at Port Talbot-based Craftsman Flooring, said the company was still working where sites remained open but that the decision taken by many to close temporarily or operate with only minimal operatives was leading to a significant reduction in works.

The company, which was founded in 1980 and has a sales turnover of more than £3.5m, operates mostly in Wales and southwest England.

‘We have new sites which we were due to commence works on imminently but these, while remaining open, are being delayed as reduced numbers allowed onsite mean programme times are being extended. Further to this, we’re having issues obtaining some materials as suppliers and manufacturers have shut or are operating with skeleton staff allowing collections only.’

Mike Dixon of Smarden-based Dixon Flooring hadn’t shut down. ‘We have some sites we can get in and we had some labs to complete for government. Some guys are on furlough, but others aren’t. We remain open every day.’

At Braintree-based Dyfed Richards, which has more than 40 years' experience making bespoke wooden floors, Chris Richards said the company was safely running on a skeleton crew. And at Jaycee Contracts in London, director John Colley told CFJ he had four sites up-and-running with ‘strict social distancing and handwashing in place’. Five floorlayers were still operational with many of the company’s subbies preferring not to work owing to the virus.

‘Some distributors are open for collection only or delivery to key NHS sites,’ said John. ‘The only project we have on is a school for those with special educational needs (SEN). A recurring problem we’re encountering is that trades preceding us - painters and plumbers - can’t get the materials they need, which is holding us up.’

As Jaycee Contracts discovered, Covid-19 quickly became a convenient excuse to delay work more than usual, which meant the company had to in turn delay paying suppliers.

On Saturday 21 March, two weeks after the first confirmed death from coronavirus in the UK, and with local deaths rising at a faster rate than Italy at the same stage, I phoned the flooring industry’s embodiment of living history: Keith Shenton, our oldest active floorlayer. He hadn’t ventured out for three days, but was planning to go to the supermarket for a few supplies

At 86, Keith was in the danger zone – worldwide, the disease was killing more men than women, and particularly the over-70s. I wanted to see how he was doing, and whether any prospective jobs had fallen through owing to the situation. As it happens, Keith was cooling his heels having been told a project he’d just quoted on was being held back.

‘I’m waiting for the go ahead,’ said Keith, before chuckling: ‘Something to do with a virus, I hear.’

Was he worried about the carnage it was wreaking? ‘You can’t avoid people and I really have to eat, so going out is a Catch-22. I’ll manage. I’ve still got foodstuff in my freezer. These things have happened before, and they’ll happen again.’

Keith has seen it all. Born in 1934, he’s a veteran of the Korean War and old enough to remember the Battle of Britain. ‘As a boy sleeping in the family prefabricated air-raid shelter in Nottingham, I heard the spitfires engage the Luftwaffe in the skies above,’ he’d told me two years ago when I was profiling him for CFJ.

Now he – and the rest of the country – were engaged in a new type of warfare.

Meanwhile, at Tyrell Flooring, Chris Knight considered the ‘massive impact’ coronavirus was having on the company. ‘We’ve had many projects stop and put on hold and suppliers close their doors.’ The next few months, he pointed out, would be challenging with little to no income but an equally big challenge was the question of when the lockdown restrictions would be eased.

‘An initial bottleneck of demand will make cash flow and material supply difficult and then there’s a mid-to-long term issue with projects put on hold or scrapped for the next few years as everyone feels the pinch.’

But Chris had more on his mind than just business. Covid-19’s relentless march meant he’d had to put on ice an Easter birthday holiday with his father. There was also the small matter of his upcoming wedding. Planned for August in France, the nuptials, like those of countless other prospective newlyweds across Europe, were now very much in the hands of the gods.