CFJ EXCLUSIVE Part 1 of our investigation into how Covid-19 hit the flooring industry

It helps, if you’re in a war, to be able to see your enemy, but we didn’t see this one coming. Covid-19 threatened to knock the floor out from under our feet. How we got from there to here – and where we go now. By DAVID STRYDOM EDITOR, CFJ

1

ONE-TIME Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once said: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ He died nearly a century ago, but his words still hold true, and never more so than at this very moment in time.

Because if anything was ever said to have come hurtling out of nowhere, changing everything in a heartbeat, completely disrupting all we hold dear – our health, the health of our loved ones, our peace of mind – this was it.

We never saw it coming the way you usually notice trouble on the horizon. There were rumours, of course, but we didn’t pay much heed. Another virus circulating in Asia? Must be Chinese whispers. We’d heard about these viruses before, and they hadn’t caused us problems. In truth, there were three times the number of outbreaks in the ‘90s as there were in the ‘40s, but somehow they always seemed to fizzle out before reaching our borders. Remember the alarms over Sars and Mers and bird flu? Had they come to anything? No. So stop fretting, and carry on living. It’ll pass, we told ourselves. It’ll be okay.

But it wasn’t okay. This time the virus had managed a devilish balance – it was sufficiently virulent to kill without being too deadly, which meant it kept its hosts alive long enough for them to pass it onto new hosts. And as it slowly killed off the elderly, the afflicted and even those deemed safe, we knew we had a fight on our hands. A fight to the death.

This year has already seen once-in-a-lifetime records fall faster than any of us will ever see again. We thought we’d seen it all after the 2008 financial crisis, when stock markets plummeted like a broken elevator in a skyscraper. Except, at least a broken elevator eventually hits rock bottom. This time, the FTSE100 and the Dow Jones seemed to be in freefall with no ground zero in sight.

Everything after that became just another number. Soon, our brains went numb, mostly to protect us from facts we couldn’t change. By the end of June, it was predicted, economic output would have shrunk 30% and two million people would have lost their jobs. We were facing the worst recession since the Great Frost of 1709. To put that in historical perspective: Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch and granddaughter of the beheaded Charles I, was still on the throne, England was embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession, America was a colony and there were more than two centuries to run before World War I and the Spanish Flu.

Early this year in the US, the situation was even worse than it was in Europe as more than 20 million -jobs – and a decade of employment growth - went down the toilet in a matter of weeks, along with Donald Trump’s enviable economic record.

How could this have happened? We thought that with our sophisticated technologies and supposedly superior environmental values, we were far too advanced to succumb to the likes of the Spanish Flu, a supposedly one-off relic from the 20th century. But it was actually our advancement, our drive for ever-greater global connectedness at any cost, that helped Covid-19 spread and prosper. Jets with human cargo packed in like sardines in a tin kept taking off long after they should’ve been grounded. Western governments, woefully inexperienced at grappling with potent viral outbreaks, dithered and delayed and hoped for the best.

As for the origins of Covid-19 – did we really want to know the truth when that would mean confronting China on its awful ‘wet’ markets?

How long would this outbreak last? we wanted to know. Was the world as we knew it about to implode? And how many trolleys of toilet rolls was it possible to jam in a bunker?

We like to imagine that a century ago, the world was a different place. World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the Treaty of Versailles – which gave a certain Adolf Hitler a leg up the career ladder – belonged in a different era. When the Russian Revolution flared in 1917, Vladimir Lenin became head of the government of Soviet Russia. It seemed everything bad and violent happened back then and couldn’t possibly happen now. How wrong we were.

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in the back of my boss’s car on the M25, heading for a trade exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, when it started snowing. It was early April and snow had been predicted only very late the previous evening, so most people kept to their travel plans. Surely a little spring snowstorm couldn’t cause that much chaos?

As it happens, the blizzard was short-lived but frenzied, and in the ensuing mayhem, the car started to skid and slide. Several other cars alongside us started to run into trouble – and at speed. I looked out the back window and distinctly remember seeing one car slam into another and start to spin across the motorway in slow motion towards us. I quickly turned around. That car never hit us, but at that moment, we ran into the car in front of us, bringing our journey to an abrupt halt.

The reason I recall this anecdote is because that brief moment in time – not more than 10 seconds – was terrifying. The situation, and therefore my life, was utterly out of my control. At times like those, time stretches out endlessly, turning a moment of horror into a silent movie. The brain freezes, paralysed by the subconscious realisation that this could be the end. It wasn’t, of course, or I wouldn’t be here writing this.

Maybe there are other times in my life when I’ve felt that sensation, but blacked it from memory. Nobody wants to hold onto negative experiences, but sometimes they’re too vivid to forget. This crisis felt a lot like that. Nobody will forget this, but neither do they want to dwell on how it feels to lose control of your fate.

That said, let’s not get carried away with wartime comparisons: Britain lost 450,000 people over six dark years in World War II, and by the time it was over in 1945, the country had been so badly ravaged it took years to recover. Covid-19 can’t rival human conflict for sheer devastation.

Nonetheless, Lenin was right when he said there are decades where nothing happens. It’s just that the 2020s clearly aren’t going to be one of them.

 

2

ON Monday 9 March, carpet fitter, CFJ columnist and NICF vice president, Brian King and his wife arrived at Venice’s local airport after a romantic four days in the historic lagoon city celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.

When Brian had booked the break in autumn 2019 there’d been no clue what lay ahead. For him, the holiday would be an opportunity to give his knees a well-earned rest from his physically exhausting day job and enjoy some long overdue quality time with his other half.

But as rumours swirled of a highly transmissible coronavirus emanating from China, Brian had begun to get jittery. Every other day leading up to his holiday, he’d rung his travel agent who insisted it was safe to travel. Brian was warned that if he cancelled, he’d forfeit his money. ‘Everything’s fine in Italy,’ they told him. ‘Don’t panic.’

The reason for Brian’s concern was the spread of the novel virus Sars-CoV-2, which causes the disease, Covid-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019), the youngest in a family of seven coronaviruses known to affect humans.

These zoonotic viruses (meaning they jump from animals to humans) are more successful when they don’t kill their hosts, but the new one, which had originated in China, wasn’t playing by the rules.

Less than a year before Brian’s Venetian escapade, in May 2019, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, had warned a pandemic was the most dangerous threat to humanity and that the death toll could rival the greatest wars of the past. With an estimated 1.5m viruses in wildlife that aren’t yet known about, and which could spill over into humans, Gates’s prediction had been timely but ultimately pointless, because it had been largely ignored.

On the morning of Brian’s departure for Venice - Wednesday 4 March – officials announced 87 confirmed coronavirus cases, the biggest one-day jump yet. But prime minister, Boris Johnson, had only two days earlier said that the UK was ‘very, very well prepared’ after chairing his first Cobra meeting on the matter. Surely there wasn’t anything to worry about.

Brian and his wife were picked up early and headed for Manchester Airport for their flight with TUI. Once there, his experience was completely different from the other times he’d flown. ‘It was quieter than usual, and a few people were wearing facemasks. Check-in was a dream – there wasn’t even a queue – and we whizzed through security.’

Brian booked the Aspire lounge where he was surprised to find a full buffet of fresh hot food and drinks and only three other couples. In fact, there were more staff members than travellers. He grabbed a couple of beers for himself and a glass of fizz for his wife to start an early celebration.
‘Boarding the plane, I was gobsmacked at how few passengers there were,’ said Brian. He wondered whether it was financially viable for an aircraft to take off with so many empty seats. His wife was worried, but he calmed her. ‘There’s nothing we can do except make the best of it,’ he said.

Once they landed in Venice, they chilled out when they noticed it was as busy as Brian had hoped. Nobody was wearing facemasks, for starters. ‘We jumped on a full water taxi with people crammed together. When we arrived at St Mark’s Square, where we were due to stay, the weather was beautiful. Holidaymakers sat outside the restaurants, eating and drinking. Our hotel was busy, and the nightlife was buzzing. The atmosphere was completely relaxed, so different from the UK where, I felt, the media had been sensationalising things.’

And indeed, over their four days in Venice, life was idyllic. They wouldn’t have been aware that on their first day, the first UK death – a woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions - was announced. Or that, the following day, Nadine Dorries, the health minister, went into self-isolation after coming down with symptoms. The Kings’ concerns would surely have been dispelled if they’d known the PM was attending the England v Wales match at Twickenham on 7 March. Good times were still being had back in the UK, clearly.

During their holiday, they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, even though nearby Lombardy in northern Italy was quickly becoming the epicentre of a public health emergency. However, water traffic was becoming so quiet, a gondolier offered Brian and his wife a special deal for a ride. Even at that point, Venice’s notoriously muddy waters were beginning to clear and Brian spotted fish darting around.

‘We walked around St Mark’s Cathedral, cruised to the island of Burano with its colourful fishing houses, and scoffed pasta and pizza at restaurants,’ says Brian. ‘The weather was absolutely gorgeous – like a really good UK summer. There were perhaps fewer people around than I’d expect in an international tourist resort, but there was no indication nearby Lombardy was beginning to spin out of control.’

For Brian, there were some hints about what was happening in the world beyond. Venice had – only days before he’d arrived – cut short its beloved carnival by two days; street performers were photographed with face masks to go with their garish costumes - a sign of the times if there ever was one.

Friends and family were texting madly, asking whether Brian was able to get home. He was perplexed. Nobody else around him was panicking, and he was supposedly right near the heart of Europe’s erupting crisis, so things couldn’t be that bad – surely. But Brian’s contacts had reason to worry: the infection (and therefore the death) rate was soaring in Italy.

I felt I could relate to Brian’s experience; I also happened to be on holiday in Venice during the last true global horror show – 9/11. On the afternoon of that dark day, heavily armed police stood around nervously in St Mark’s Square, although we were to learn of the attacks in the US only later that evening. The newspaper headlines the next day spoke an international language: ARMAGEDDON, shouted one.

March 2020 was seeing the start of another sort of Armageddon. But instead of airbuses hurtling through the sunny skies to terrify and slaughter the innocent, as they’d done in Manhattan, this microscopic agent of the apocalypse was revealing itself slowly – and invisibly.

For the Kings, the scale of this decade’s 9/11 slowly began to sink in when, on the final night of their holiday, they noticed army and police walking around and bars and restaurants started to shut early. ‘Italy is a very religious country, so I thought they were closing because it was Sunday,’ said Brian. ‘But later when we got back to our hotel, the travel agent rang to say the country was now a red zone and was going into full lockdown.’

Indeed, Giuseppe Conte, the prime minster, had that very day said Italy was ‘facing an emergency, a national emergency’. Nonetheless, Brian’s agent assured him that – for the moment – his flight was still scheduled to leave on time.

As Brian and his wife fell asleep on their final night in Venice, a mere 30 miles west of them, the town of Vo was sealed off. Further west, the centre of the epidemic in Europe, Bergamo, was already being pushed to its limits by the dead and dying. And doctors at the hospital – under siege, despite being one of the most sophisticated on the continent – had a message for the UK: ‘Get ready. It’s coming.’

 

3

AT Venice airport, Brian watched the flight information screen opposite. Being a nervous flier, he’d had a couple of beers to take the edge off. Suddenly, he noticed red banners announcing flight after flight had been cancelled. He exchanged concerned looks with his wife. Maybe their travel operator had been overly optimistic about their flight remaining on schedule.

‘Now my wife was worried. She feared we’d never get out.’ But fortunately for the Kings, their flight to Manchester – along with four or five others – remained on schedule. Finally, after a harrowing wait, they were called to depart. ‘We were very relieved,’ said Brian.

He had no idea how lucky he’d been. As per his travel agent’s message, PM Conte was effectively sealing off Italy. Emergency measures such as travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings were being enforced. Flight passengers departing and arriving were having to justify why they’d flown.

In a comment that would resonate with Britons, Conte told La Repubblica: ‘I’ve been thinking about Winston Churchill’s speeches – it’s our darkest hour, but we’ll make it.’

In fact, the first cases of Covid-19 in Italy hadn’t been in the north but further south, in the capital Rome, where a Chinese couple from Wuhan had arrived – via Milan, Verona and Parma – on 28 January. After coughing and feeling feverish, they were diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 on 31 January.

Angela Giuffrida, Italy correspondent for The Guardian, noted ‘No more masks’ signs appearing on the windows of chemists in Rome. ‘My neighbour began disinfecting the banisters of the building’s stairwell and door handles. ‘You never know,’ he said one morning, smoking a cigarette. I chalked most of this up to paranoia, not quite grasping something happening so far away in China could reach Europe.’

That day, the government stopped flights to and from China. It wasn’t until 6 February that the third case was confirmed, an Italian repatriated from Wuhan. By 26 February, all three patients had recovered. But by then, the virus had started to take on a life of its own with the emergence of a secondary cluster in Veneto where, on 21 February, two people had tested positive. The next day one of them, a 78-year-old man, died in Monselice, becoming Italy’s fatality; later that day, 54 cases were confirmed countrywide.

On 22 February, there were 54 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Italy. The next day, draconian measures were slapped on 11 towns, 10 in Lombardy and one in Veneto (Vo) in a vain attempt to stop the virus in its tracks. By 25 February Angela Giuffrida, now in Milan to cover the developing story, noticed a group of tourists sitting near the foyer to her hotel, coughing repeatedly. ‘Did they have coronavirus?’ she wondered. ‘I became hypervigilant for potential symptoms.’

Only six days later, on 2 March (two days before Brian left for Venice), the number of infected had exploded to a staggering 1,694. Already, 10% of Lombardy’s doctors and nurses had been quarantined after testing positive. Some hospitals were overwhelmed. Dr Massimo Galli, head of infectious disease at Milan’s Sacco Hospital, said: ‘This epidemic is on a scale that’s larger than anyone could have thought, imagined or prevented.’

It was as though Italy – and more specifically Bergamo, a province of 1.2m people in the Lombardy region – had been a tinderbox waiting to be lit.
The metaphorical spark was said to have been a Champions League football game, the biggest in Atalanta’s history, which took place on 19 February. About 40,000 Bergamo inhabitants travelled to Milan’s San Siro stadium where they were joined by about 2,500 fans from Spanish club Valencia. In total, a record 45,792 came to see Atalanta make its debut in Europe’s premier club competition.

The game, later described as a ‘biological bomb’, may have become ‘Game Zero’ for Bergamo. Less than a week later, the province saw its first cases of Covid-19. More than a third of Valencia’s team became infected, as did a journalist who attended the game. Valencian fans also started to succumb, taking the virus to that southern Spanish city.

Luca Lorini, head of ICU at Bergamo’s Pope John XXIII hospital told The Associated Press: ‘I’m sure 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimetre apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals (the final result was 4-1) — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion. Right now we’re at war. When peace time comes, I can assure you we’ll go to see how many of the 40,000 people who went to the game became infected.’

On 1 March, special commissioner for Covid-19, Angelo Borrelli, said Italians’ physically expressive nature had been well exploited by the virus. ‘We have a collective social life that is very florid, very expansive. We have lots of contact, we shake hands, kiss each other, hug each other. Maybe it’s better now not to shake hands, and don’t have too much contact, and try to be a bit less expansive.’

But by the time Brian was airborne for Manchester, Bergamo’s nightmare was irreversible. So numerous were the dead that cemeteries were overwhelmed; military trucks were transporting bodies to nearby regions for cremation. Profusely family-oriented Italians were denied the opportunity to bid their loved ones farewell. Hearses resorted to driving slowly past the homes of the dead so family members could wave their goodbyes. In the obituary section of the local paper, 10 pages were needed in mid-March where only one had been necessary in early February.

On 11 March, two days after Brian had left Venice, Italy had the second highest number of infections outside China. That day the World Health Organisation (WHO) awoke from its apparent slumber, finally declaring the outbreak a pandemic.
‘WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we’re deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the … inaction,’ said its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (As late as 30 January, the WHO had sniffed at the prospect of labelling Covid-19 a pandemic. ‘Pandemic isn’t a word to use lightly or carelessly. It’s a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,’ Adhanom said.)
So why, when China appeared to have been aware of the new virus since November, did it not inform WHO until the end of December? Why, when it knew human-to-human transmission was possible in December, was it still denying it in January? And why and why and why.

To find answers, it’s pertinent to go back to the real Ground Zero – the Chinese city of Wuhan.

 

4

HOME to more than 11m people, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province is a sprawling commercial hub split by the Yangtze and Han rivers. But although Wuhan is graced by lakes, parks and museums containing antiquities from the Warring States period, it’s a now-closed ‘wet market’ that’s of most interest to medical scientists.

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in the modern Jianghan district near shops and apartment buildings and within a couple of blocks of Hankou railway station, was spread over more than 50,000sq m (540,000sq ft). With over 1,000 tenants, it was perhaps the largest seafood wholesale market in Central China.

Officially, it was designated as dealing only in live animals and seafood. Unofficially, it was known for illegal wildlife trading. Reportedly up for grabs was a veritable banquet of exotic species - giant salamanders, civets, pangolins, venomous snakes, bats and even wolf puppies. The South China Morning Post said that one section of the market sold about 120 wildlife animals across 75 species.

In narrow lanes and closely stacked stalls, livestock was kept in close proximity to dead animals, some of which had been openly slaughtered and skinned in the market. Sanitation, said The New York Times, was dismal with ‘poor ventilation and garbage piled on wet floors’.

Viruses thrive when they can jump from animals to humans in areas where live animals are densely housed and butchered onsite. And in such markets, even if wildlife isn’t present, hygiene standards are difficult to maintain. Because coronaviruses can jump from animals to humans, it’s thought the first people infected with the disease were stallholders from the market who’d contracted it from contact with animals.

Initial reports said Covid-19 was similar to viruses carried by snakes – a disturbing prospect. The reason is snakes are cold-blooded, and viruses tend to stick to same-species hosts. In other words, if a virus has evolved in a warm-blooded mammal such as a bat or a rat, it can more easily pass to humans. But if Covid-19 moved from snake to human, that means it crossed the species barrier.

But scientists are still hunting for the host species. And even if bats – notorious carriers of several zoonotic viruses such as Ebola, HIV and rabies - weren’t sold at Wuhan market, it’s entirely likely they infected live chickens or other animals sold there.

However, China rejected US president Donald Trump’s undiplomatic labelling of coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’. Dr Zhong Nanshan, head of a team of doctors spearheading China's battle against Covid-19, said: ‘The epidemic of the novel coronavirus pneumonia indeed took place in Wuhan - but it doesn’t mean its source is in Wuhan. It’s a scientific problem. I think it’s irresponsible to conclude lightly before (the matter) is clarified.’

Some reports indicated early cases of Covid-19 affected people with no link to the Wuhan market (including a pensioner in his 70s who fell ill on 1 December), suggesting - as Dr Zhong Nanshan said – that the genesis of human infection may have occurred before the market infections.

As the virus spread, authorities tried to stop the outbreak becoming a national embarrassment by silencing local doctors and journalists who tried to sound the alarm. The case of Dr Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, is a particularly damning indictment of the Chinese government’s role in aiding the spread of the virus.

On 30 December – the day before the WHO China office became aware that an unknown virus was causing pneumonia in Wuhan – Dr Li sent a confidential message on group chat to colleagues, sounding the alarm over an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome, and warning them to wear protective clothing.

Within days, his alert had reached Wuhan police who made him sign a letter warning he’d receive full sanction of the law if he ‘stubbornly persisted’ in his opinions. The police, it emerged, were investigating him for ‘severely disturbing the social order’. On New Year’s Day, the Wuhan market was conveniently closed so it could be inspected and cleaned ‘for renovations’ but it was too little, too late. The horse (or virus) had bolted, beyond the market and was rapidly spreading through the local population.

On 10 January, two days after treating a glaucoma patient who happened to be a storekeeper at the wet market, Li developed a cough, so he booked a hotel room to avoid infecting his pregnant wife and young son. The next day, he started running a fever just as the first known death from an illness caused by the virus was announced – a 61-year-old regular customer of Wuhan market.

Li’s symptoms had become so bad by 12 January that he was admitted to ICU. Statistics now tell us that someone aged 33 should have easily fight off the virus – after all, both his parents had recovered after infection – but it’s believed his glaucoma patient, the market storekeeper, had had such a high viral load from exposure to the market that Li was particularly badly affected.

Inexplicably, China was at around this time still denying evidence of transmission between humans and in fact let a large festival (involving tens of thousands of people) in Wuhan go ahead. When China finally acted, it was to cut links between Wuhan and the rest of China – but crucially flights between Wuhan and the rest of the world were allowed to continue.

Meanwhile, Li tested positive for the new virus on 30 January; two days later he was formally diagnosed. By then, the WHO had awoken from its slumber to declare a public health emergency. Li sent an online message from his hospital bed, vowing to defeat his infection and return to the frontlines, but it was a wish he’d never fulfil because the disease had progressed from the cells in his lower respiratory tract and into his lungs.

By 5 February he was critically ill, his body simply unable to access the oxygen his tissues desperately needed from his lungs. Respiratory failure is Covid-19’s chosen means of killing, and Li was by then struggling to breathe. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation was apparently used to keep him alive, but it failed, and his death was formally announced on 7 February. Outrage at the censorship of Li started to spread online, and at an event to mourn him in New York’s Central Park a crowd of about 200 gathered, most dressed in black and wearing face-masks.
According to The New Yorker magazine, a man in a blue windbreaker jogged past and looked intrigued. Asked if he knew of Dr Li, he said, ‘Of course. A hero, for all the wrong reasons’.’

 

5

WHEN Brian King returned to Manchester from his holiday, he was puzzled by the difference in approach taken by the Italians and the British. What was all that about ‘keeping calm and carrying on’? Instead, Brian found it was the Italians who’d been relaxed and his fellow Brits who were losing their collective cool.

‘It was odd,’ he says. ‘The Italians were going about their daily business and over here everyone was flapping.’ There was an immediate consequence of his trip to Italy though; a friend’s grandparents, for whom he’d agreed to do a job prior to his holiday, politely postponed on the off-chance he’d brought the dreaded virus back with him. Actually, they were right to be cautious – increasingly, reports were emerging of infected people bringing Covid-19 into the UK from Italy.

Soon, Brian was back at work. ‘Queries came in as usual. Maybe things were better up north at that point, I don’t know. It could just be you cockneys who were flapping,’ he joked.

But he wasn’t making light of the situation. ‘I’ve heard of floorlayers losing work. In fact, one guy apparently lost a month’s worth of work in a single day. Whether that was because he was working on a commercial site for a month or whether he had several small domestic cases cancelling on him, I don’t know.’

In north Yorkshire, where she’d recently moved from London, senior facilities management (FM) consultant Fiona Bowman - a judge on the CFJ/CFA Awards panel - was thinking ahead. She’d had one eye on the developing situation in China as early as Christmas.

As someone with vast experience effectively running buildings and in all elements of property management, Fiona works with senior management and directors of businesses to help them shape and manage facilities.
‘I call myself Nanny McPhee without the warts because I go in when they need me and when they don’t need me anymore, I go away,’ she said, laughing. ‘I monitor the FM stream with fast analysis and action, seeing where the problems are, and providing solutions. I give my clients the tools they need including training and development and mentoring support at a high level.’

As an FM, Fiona said she’d learned to quickly spot potential problems on the horizon. ‘It’s not an instinctive skill but rather something I’ve learned because of my background and the world I’ve lived in. I was working for big investment banks during the Y2K dilemma at the turn of the millennium, and that taught me if you see something happening globally, you start to plan.’

Covid-19 was one such problem – an immediate red flag - as Fiona realised it could turn into a pandemic, although she felt there was confusion about how it was spreading, and thought people were minimising its danger.

One of Fiona’s first and overriding thoughts was: ‘Water pipes! When people shut down buildings, there are so many concerns around water treatment. Legionella and pseudomonas are real risks. Who is going to flush the showers and run the taps?’

Fiona laughed at her propensity to mentally escalate to worst-case scenario. ‘I was worried about the cash machines running empty and I know it sounds selfish, but I was so relieved my husband David and I had moved from the southeast to Yorkshire last summer. Because it’s much less populated up north, I knew we’d be safer. Plus we’d avoided havoc on the housing market.’

In early 2020, she was travelling weekly to London to meet her clients. ‘Behind the scenes I was working with a large local authority where the FM team was having to take on more tasks than normal. The big question at that point was, how do you manage an entire portfolio of buildings from home? Managing buildings requires a great deal of hands-on activity.’

For starters, Fiona realised people’s roles would have to change and in advising her clients, her role progressed from being developmental to supportive.

Wayne Abbott, client services manager at Loughton Direct in London, took a more sanguine approach. ‘The virus came to my attention when I heard reports about it in late January. Loughton’s main concern was how badly it was hitting our materials suppliers in Italy. But I tend to live in the moment and early on I didn’t think it would end up causing as much carnage as it did. The office atmosphere was very much: we should be careful, but it’s probably not going to spread here.’

The virus still factored in Loughton’s disaster planning, though and the company advised employees to be sensible about sanitiser gel use.

Wayne’s role entails working solely with end-users and facilities managers, and evaluating existing projects before passing them to main contractors. He conducts several onsite client meetings a day and usually spends no more than half a day in the office, placing him in the line of fire with respect to virus transmission.

‘I didn’t think about it from a personal perspective,’ he said. ‘My first thought was for my family as my parents are still working and self-employed. As the situation escalated, I was involved in helping with office admin such as ensuring we were following guidelines, facilitating those who needed to work from home and providing what they needed in order to do so. It was a case of rolling with the punches.’

But Covid-19 was about to land a punch so hard that even Wayne may have flinched: its progression into the UK was perfectly timed to derail Loughton Direct’s imminent relocation to new offices in Canary Wharf.

 

6

FEAR had infested the CFJ offices, too: there was a mini-alarm when our head of accounts, Kathleen Toland, told us her husband had been holed up in an office with a German colleague who’d recently returned from a business trip in Milan. The travelling co-worker had developed a cough, sending everyone into a tailspin. But when the co-worker returned to Germany and tested negative, the incident became just another example of the insidious (but not always rational) panic spreading through the population.

There was a reason for that. On Friday 29 January, the UK had confirmed its first cases: two members of the same family (a University of York student and a relative) had tested positive after recently travelling from China. Meanwhile a plane evacuating Britons from Wuhan arrived at RAF Brize Norton where passengers went into a 14-day quarantine at a specialist hospital on Merseyside.

On Thursday 6 February, a third person was diagnosed, this time in Brighton, after travelling back from Singapore via a French Alps ski chalet where five Brits were subsequently infected. This cluster of infections was reportedly brought by a UK businessman who’d attended a Singapore conference.

After that, the trickle of cases became a flow. On Sunday 9 February, a fourth person was diagnosed and on the following day, four more joined the list. The first confirmed case in London was announced on Thursday 13 February – a woman who’d travelled from China. All the while, officials were working feverishly to identify anybody the afflicted had been in contact with before they’d been diagnosed.

From the early days, John Butler, founder of John Butler Contractors, CFA treasurer-general and a judge in the CFJ/CFA Awards, had been following the course of the virus, thinking that because Sars and Mers had been successfully contained, this one would too.

‘I never imagined it would reach our shores,’ he said. ‘But then I realised, with people given free range to fly all over the show and no checks at airports, we might be in trouble. Thousands of people coming in by plane everyday - it was crazy!’
In late February, the newspapers were still dominated by non-coronavirus stories. In one paper, for instance, the headline on Friday 21 February revolved around the findings of a report into the Windrush scandal (this was the day, incidentally, when biophysicist Michael Levitt who runs a laboratory at Stanford University in California, forecasted there’d be 80,000 cases and 3,250 deaths in China); on Tuesday 25 February, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s face was plastered on front pages after he was convicted of sexual assault.

But the complacency was about to change. There were murmurs global air travel was falling for the first time in more than a decade, and on 23 February, four Britons rescued from the Diamond Princess cruise ship tested positive, bringing the confirmed cases to 13. The case of this British-registered cruise ship was proof – if any was needed – that even the high seas weren’t safe. During its month-long quarantine, more than 700 passengers and crew out of 3,711 were infected. Eight died.

Over the next few days, the virus invaded Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland as it continued to spread through the shires. Infections emerged in Berkshire, Derbyshire, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, West Yorkshire… the counties fell like dominoes.

On Friday 28 February, it was announced that a man in Surrey was the first person to contract the disease within the country. Now the landscape changed rapidly. Sporting events were under threat of cancellation and schools drew up closure plans. More flights were cancelled, and the airline industry began to talk of a 9/11-like squeeze.

At CFJ, we began to quietly contemplate for the first time the fact that our awards – scheduled for Friday 19 June at Coombe Abbey – may have to be postponed. Such a consideration would’ve been unthinkable only days earlier, but now it was suddenly reality. However, at that point, our judging day was still scheduled to take place at the CFA offices in Nottingham on Friday 27 March.

Chris Knight, commercial director at Tyrrell Flooring – one of London’s oldest flooring contractors – watched the unfolding virus situation with increasing concern.

‘The whole experience was somewhat surreal,’ he told CFJ. ‘When I first saw the images and news coming in from Europe, it was frightening and shocking - yet still surreal. It didn’t initially fully sink in that we were 100% on the same path. It was like the first stage of any shocking incident – denial! This somewhat paralysed things and the usual logical decision-making process.’ 

For 31-year-old Chris, life before Covid-19 had been smooth enough. The keen golfer and cyclist, who lives with his fiancée in Surrey, loved watching ‘the mighty’ Crystal Palace in action, although he’d spent a lot of his spare time doing ‘wedmin’ (wedding administration) for his upcoming nuptials in France.

As the situation in Italy became more serious, Boris Johnson said government would ‘stop at nothing’ to tackle the virus. On 3 March, as scientists told ministers the public should be advised against handshakes, he’d popped up on TV boasting of shaking hands in a hospital. But when UK cases jumped by a third in one day, the mood darkened. ‘We are,’ Matt Handcock, health secretary, told a full but hushed parliament, ‘in a war against an invisible killer.’

Spring may have been in the air, but something menacing was afoot. For the first time in a long time, people started to feel very scared. Around this time, a Peter Brookes cartoon in The Times, entitled ‘Blitz Spirit’, sent a shiver down my spine. It depicted the iconic photo of an unbroken St Paul’s Cathedral after the Battle of Britain during World War II. But in the cartoon, the smoke engulfing the cathedral teemed with spiky coronavirus bodies.

It felt like the calm-before-the-storm that our grandparents experienced during the Phoney War, after the declaration of war on Nazi Germany but before Luftwaffe bombs started to rain down fire.

 

7

BRIAN’s first job post-Venice was a week-long gig doing flooring in student accommodation. The timing was perfect – because there were no students around (in fact, there was nobody else around either), Brian was able to crack on. The following week, he worked at Blackburn Theatre. As luck would have it, the theatre was closed for renovation anyway.

After that, he had another student accommodation job lined up before heading to Scotland on holiday, but because the wholesalers had closed, Brian wasn’t able to work. With the national economy deteriorating rapidly, his mind turned to his future income and the fact the self-employed would get state payouts in only a couple of months.

‘I tried telling my wife this several times, but she kept spending as if nothing was wrong,’ said Brian. ‘My friend has a carpet shop and after a couple of weeks received £10,000 from government – handy for him but us self-employed had to wait. I know people who work week-to-week. They get paid on a Friday, then spend their money in time for next Friday’s payday. I feel sorry for them.’

As Brian and his wife had touched down in Manchester on Monday 9 March, global markets were already plunging, suffering their worst day since the 2008 financial crisis. A sell-off, causing billions of pounds of wealth to disappear into thin air, was dubbed the new Black Monday, but that was just the start. That Wednesday, the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made provision for a £12bn package of support to help the UK cope with fallout from the virus. The following day, a travel ban on flights from Europe was announced by US president, Donald Trump, causing the FTSE 100 to fall more than 10% - its worst day since the 1987 Black Monday.

Now, an international public health crisis was turning into an economic one. At least with 9/11, the terror had been confined to a single day. And at least with the Great Recession of 2007-2009, it was the banks which were hardest hit, not ordinary businesses. Back then, consumers were still flying to holiday resorts and going to clubs, pubs and restaurants. With coronavirus, that wasn’t the case.

Thursday 12 March saw perhaps the most pivotal moment in the UK so far. At his now daily press conference, Boris Johnson, his expression uncharacteristically solemn, said: ‘It (coronavirus) is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: more families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.’

At the press conference, Guardian reporter Kate Proctor looked up from her notepad, recognising those words as a turning point. ‘(It was) the moment everything changed in terms of reporters’ understanding of the crisis’s severity and unprecedented scale,’ she wrote. ‘You could hear a pin drop as we listened to the rest of Johnson’s address.’

The next day she travelled to Northumberland to see her parents, who are in their 60s, and asked them to take the advice seriously. ‘We washed our hands so much that weekend we ended up with cracked skin.’

Tyrrell Flooring’s Chris Knight tried to process the sheer pace of events. ‘After the initial shock, I moved to the next stage – acceptance. Yet, this was a frightening place to be, a whirlwind of uncertainty. It was clear pretty early on that things were about to get really difficult. It creates a chain of events which we still don't know how to exit from.’

Construction, Chris said, probably felt the issues caused by the virus more than any sector owing to what he described as the ‘fragmented nature of the industry and most people being self-employed’.

He was in no doubt, back then, of just how momentous Covid-19 was going to be from a historical perspective. ‘The loss of life is significant, the impact on everyone’s lives now and for years to come will be significant and the impact on the economy, I believe, will create the worst disaster since World War 2. Even after we’ve started to repair this, its damage will be felt for decades.’

On 13 March the PM, on a call to his Italian counterpart Conte, appeared to support a ‘herd immunity’ approach. Indeed, Sir Patrick Vallance, UK chief scientific advisor, told broadcasters that day government’s strategy had been in part to ‘build up some degree of herd immunity’.

That morning, FM consultant Fiona Bowman rang me. ‘I’m just wondering what the plan is with respect to Friday 27 March?’ she said. ‘I don’t mind either way, but I wanted to check you’re aware of the situation.’

Only the previous Wednesday, Fiona had emailed me saying she was planning to travel from Yorkshire the night before the judging. But amid the growing panic, it had slipped my mind that the panel was due to meet at the CFA’s HQ in Nottingham in order to choose our award winners. ‘Leave it with me, Fiona,’ I replied. ‘I’ll get back to you.’

I rang Richard Catt, ceo of the CFA, to test his position on matters. ‘As things stand today, I’d say we should go ahead,’ said Richard. ‘But come next Friday, the picture might be completely different.’

So, I emailed the panel, with the subject line JUDGMENT DAY, saying we’d keep a close eye on events but as of that stage, 27 March was still on. I didn’t seriously think, even at that late stage, that matters would escalate as badly as they did.

But between that email and Tuesday the following week, the scale of what we faced became apparent. On Saturday 14 March, the death toll in Britain doubled. On Sunday, France and Spain joined Italy in lockdown, and a few days later, the prime minster urged Brits not to go to pubs and theatres, to work from home if they could and to cancel non-essential travel.

‘We’re taking way the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the UK to go the pub,’ he said. ‘And I can understand how people feel about that. But I say to people who go against the advice … you’re not only putting your own life and the lives of your family at risk, you’re endangering the community.’

Richard Catt had arrived for work on the morning of Monday 16 March, and prepared to travel to Scotland on business. But by that evening, he realised it wasn’t going to happen, thanks largely to the increasingly urgent tone of the prime minister’s press conferences.

‘The situation was escalating, and I realised it was extraordinarily serious. That Monday was my D-day; I knew the world had really started to change significantly. Events and meetings we’d planned, travel arrangements and a whole host of other things started to unravel or collapse like a house of cards. No sooner had I put the phone down dealing with one change than it rang again, and a similar scenario would unfold. That evening I was exhausted, and I knew we were all in for a rough ride.’

Richard moved quickly to put some resilience plans in to place and launched a blog for CFA members hosted on the website. Nonetheless, the following week felt like months for him. ‘It was like watching a child topple over from a height in slow motion, reaching out to try to break their fall but not quite getting there in time. It was a real overload.’

 

8

RICHARD’s imaginary child kept falling as all over the world, the numbers of people infected with Covid-19, increased alarmingly. Most got only mild symptoms as the virus affected the upper respiratory tracts – the airwaves from the nose to just above the vocal chords. But as the immune system fought back, fevers and a dry cough developed. In more serious cases, the virus spread to the lungs, making it harder to breathe, and developed into pneumonia. In some, the immune system went into overdrive, leading to organ failure.

On Tuesday 17 March, the day Patrick Vallance told a committee of MPs that keeping the ultimate number of deaths under 20,000 would be ‘a good result’, I sent an email to the judges: ‘We’ve come to the decision, after consulting Richard, that - given the current public health situation - it isn’t practical to go ahead with the meeting in Nottingham.’

By now it was palpably clear the awards had to be postponed, too. Fortunately, Coombe Abbey had dates available in autumn, and the new date became Friday 4 September.

Meanwhile, later that day, new chancellor Rishi Sunak unleashed the biggest package of emergency state support for business since the 2008 financial crash - £330bn worth of government-backed loans and more than £20bn in tax cuts and grants for companies threatened with collapse. Three days later, he announced government would pay up to 80% of wages for workers at risk of being laid off, and on 26 March, he unveiled measures to help self-employed workers, giving those earning less than £50,000 a taxable grant equal to 80% of their average profits.

Back at the CFA, training manager Shaun Wadsworth was having coronavirus-inspired problems of his own. His daughter, who’s nearly five, gets a cold with a cough twice a year. Although Shaun and his wife, a teacher of vulnerable children, knew her latest cough wasn’t Covid-19, they had no choice – owing to new government guidelines – but to pull her out of school and into self-isolation for 14 days. And because their daughter was self-isolating, Shaun and his wife had to follow suit. By the time their stint ended on 31 March, the country was in lockdown and there was no question of going back to work or school.

But Shaun didn’t take his eye off the ball with respect to apprenticeships. ‘I’ve been ensuring employers do the right thing by their apprentices,’ he said. ‘There’s sometimes a misperception that apprenticeships sit outside the employed state, but they shouldn’t.’

On a positive note, the CITB said grants would continue to be paid, and it was determined apprentices wouldn’t lose precious time because of the lockdown. ‘The lockdown will be treated as a break in learning, and fortunately there was provision for that before the virus appeared,’ said Shaun. ‘If, for instance, an apprentice had an accident and couldn’t continue his apprenticeship for four weeks, he could return afterwards and pick up where he left off. That’s the format that will be used for the lockdown.’

For Shaun, there was a significant difference between Covid-19 and other global crises. ‘Never has there been something that’s stopped me socialising, that’s a threat to health and business, and which is having a worldwide impact. I’ve never known something to be so specific to both me and the rest of the world at the same time.’

Apart from apprenticeships, I was hearing disturbing reports about the immediate effect the crisis was having on the flooring industry. In one instance, a contractor had had to lay off most of his staff. The reason: Most of his work was in care homes and other medical facilities and his clients no longer wanted it carried out.

To understand how the crisis affected the industry, it helps to know that it’s roughly split into three types of businesses – the one-man outfits; medium-sized contractors which do their own jobs as well as work for bigger contractors; and the large contractors, often corporates, who are, to a degree, dependent on big construction projects.

One source told me large contractors were ‘clinging to the rockface, desperately hoping government didn’t shut down big construction sites, or at least that the chaos didn’t last long’.

Another said: ‘If government orders sites to close in pursuance of social distancing, contracts become null-and- void, added to which, Covid-19 will be deemed as force majeure and no insurers will cover.’

Force majeure refers to a clause included in contracts to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and restrict participants from fulfilling obligations.

Further up the chain, to the main contractors, there were concerns about cash-flow, which isn’t fluid at the best of times among the giants of construction. Doubts were raised about their ability to apply for government funding because, as a source told me, ‘if they weren’t getting loans from the banking sector before this crisis, why would government loan them money now?’

In the flooring industry, the focus was on staying one step ahead: if a company had to mothball its business, how long could it possibly do so before picking it up again once the crisis had passed?

Nobody can claim government didn’t do everything in its power to ease the pain for those losing their jobs and businesses. Rishi Sunak was a revelation. Yes, his spending made Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges before last December’s election look miserly, but then nobody knew, only a few short weeks later, that we’d be facing the fight of our lives.

Still so new in the job that he radiated enthusiasm, Sunak announced £30bn to fight coronavirus in his budget speech, and six days later added another £350bn. Then he made an announcement that will go down in history: government would pay 80% of the wages of anyone furloughed and kept on their employer’s payroll, with ‘no limit to the amount of funding’.

On Monday 23 March, Boris Johnson finally took the historic step already taken by other European governments – he told 27m watching Britons the biggest peacetime curbs on their freedoms in living memory was about to be enforced. This meant people could leave home only to shop for essential foods and medicines, exercise once a day, help care for vulnerable people and commute to and from work, but only if essential. The rules would be enforced via police fines.

‘We’ll beat the coronavirus and we’ll beat it together,’ said the PM. ‘And therefore I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.’