What can the UK construction industry learn from the coronavirus outbreak?

Coronovirus hospital

The news of the coronavirus outbreak in China has been met with varying emotions; shock, outrage, and fear. The speed at which the disease has spread has left many people panicking.  However, the speed at which the Chinese government has moved to contain and treat the disease has been equally impressive.

Mobilising every possible resource the first of two new coronavirus hospitals, with 1000 beds was built from scratch in just ten days. Construction on the second one is about to begin. Considering the planning phase alone of most projects like this takes years in the UK, how has China achieved this? And more importantly what can the UK and the rest of the world learn from this construction feat?

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel

The hospital was designed using the plans for an emergency hospital that was built in 2003 to contain the SARS epidemic. All the specifications and requirements of an infectious disease facility were already detailed and simply needed to be adapted to fit the new site. Plans had been digitized and saved, as had details of the engineering works. Engineers and project managers could simply tap into those resources to fast-track the process. This is a prime example of BIM in practice.

  1. Materials fit for purpose

The Chinese are known for their engineering expertise and finding solutions for seemingly impossible problems. The primary issue they were facing was speed of construction. The population needed the hospital NOW, not next year. So they repurposed shipping containers, used prefabricated panels and steel frames to construct the hospital. It’s a strong case to support off-site manufacturing.

  1. Shift work

While China may not have a reputation for the best labour practices, they do know how to get the job done. The coronavirus hospital project was successful because construction happened 24/7 with manufacturers and construction workers operating in shifts around the clock.

  1. Collaboration

They may have been ordered to do it by government, but still the various parties came together collaboratively to fulfill their respective roles in the project. Even the sourcing of medical supplies was a part of this to ensure that as soon as the facility was completed it could become fully operational.

  1. Big picture thinking

While democracy certainly has its benefits, it also slows down progress, because everyone has to have their say, and most have their own agenda too. In the case of the coronavirus hospital there was no time (or allowance) for this. The big picture focused on the need to get the hospital built – fast. No squabbling over funding or tenders or who would benefit most.

Now the UK is not China, and most Britons probably wouldn’t want it to be. But the UK construction industry could certainly learn a thing or two from China when it comes to productivity, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our approach if we want the industry outlook to improve.