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Danger, no work in progress for some Benelux builders in lockdown

BRUSSELS/LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Builders across the Benelux countries are juggling different coronavirus lockdown rules as well as a construction slowdown as they try to keep their businesses going.

Cranes are seen above closed construction sites near the Atomium monument in Brussels during the lockdown imposed by the Belgian government to slow down the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread, in Brussels, Belgium April 20, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

While construction has carried on largely as normal in the Netherlands, Belgian builders say work has almost ground to a standstill, while in neighbouring Luxembourg, construction workers returned to work this week after a complete shutdown.

“Civil and large building projects have slowed down by more than 50%,” Florence Bribosia, spokeswoman at BESIX, said of activity in Belgium, adding that the Belgian construction group was still “very active” in the Netherlands.

“There we never had to close or slow down because the measures are completely different which is partially strange because it’s the same business and only a few kilometres away,” Bribosia told Reuters.

Across the Belgian border, Luxembourg on Monday allowed building sites, municipal recycling centres, home improvement stores and garden centres to reopen.

Face masks are now mandatory for construction workers in the first phase of the Grand Duchy’s exit from lockdown, which brought the building sector to a complete halt last month.

“We were hit by a thunderstorm. All work was suspended,” said Romain Schmit, secretary-general of the Federation of Craftsmen, whose members include the majority of Luxembourg’s 3,600 construction companies, which employ 55,000 people.

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Schmit estimated 60-70% of workers returned to work on Monday, saying the government had taken the right decision.

“Three more months and the companies would be bankrupt. You can’t just consider the health and sanitary issues, you have to consider the whole economy, society,” Schmit said.

WORK IN PROGRESS

Social distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus within society are particularly hard to implement in an industry where workers work side by side every day.

In one of its office building sites in Belgium, where BESIX generated around half of its income in 2018, a construction manager said he had to make do with 17 workers instead of 290.

Bribosia said the biggest issue for BESIX’s activity in its home market is a rule requiring workers to keep 1.5 metres apart, regardless of whether they wear protective clothing.

Dutch research institute EIB this month forecast that 40,000 jobs will disappear in the Netherlands in the next two years, saying that the coronavirus pandemic will be worse for construction than the 2008 financial crisis. It expects a total contraction of 15% in the construction sector.

Another challenge for the industry has been disruptions in the supply chain, the Belgian Construction Confederation said.

“The whole chain of partners have to be put in place. It will take time for the partners to be 100% in place,” Veronique Vanderbruggen, a spokeswoman for confederation said.

And it is not just national differences which are causing headaches, Vanderbruggen said, adding that restrictions imposed by Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north of Belgium and French-speaking Wallonia in the south of the country were not the same.

Belgium has reported 40,956 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 5,998 associated deaths, while Luxembourg has had 3,558 confirmed cases and 75 fatalities and the Netherlands 33,405 cases with 3,751 deaths.

Additional reporting and writing by Foo Yun Chee in BRUSSELS and Stephanie van den Berg in THE HAGUE; Editing by Alexander Smith

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