“The reality is we were going to do this anyway – it was our plan to do a little more open public-facing work,” explains Jon Vanstone, Chair of Certass Trade Association (TA), as we chat over the phone about Certass TA’s new Facebook forum to support members through the coronavirus. “But we just decided, you know what, people need it now, let’s put it into play,” he continued.
And individuals and businesses do need support now more than ever. Construction, alongside society in general, is currently having to deal with a situation the likes of which we’ve never encountered before. The coronavirus is testing businesses and individuals from both a health and economic perspective, and whilst government adapts and responds as quickly as it can, the situation is putting a financial strain on individuals and also affecting their health and mental wellbeing.
And it’s the uncertainty of the current climate which Jon and the Certass TA team are looking to address. He explains that whilst there is strong information coming from government, it’s about taking that information and seeing what it means for each individual sector, whilst also filtering through the misinformation and opinions on social media and 24hr news which can muddy the waters. And that’s what the Certass TA Facebook Forum has been designed to do.
He explained: “What we don’t want to do is just take a load of stuff and just dump it there – like can often happen with forums – it has to be filtered and moderated. So, simply just taking the government information and saying ‘that’s the info’ is a really weak way of doing it; you’re just staying out of the conversation, you’re not interpreting it for your membership, you’re just saying ‘here you go guys, here’s a load of info that we know you probably don’t fully understand, but there you go’”.
Jon points to the issue around site closures which has caused much confusion: “If you take construction for instance, you have to actually look at the source for the guidance – whilst Build UK can produce updates, their main body of workforce is the commercial construction world, the specialist area working on hospitals etc. they’re not talking to our main base which is the domestic residential installer. So that’s where bodies such as Certass TA can really do some good because we’re very focussed on our industry and we’re focussed on the local installer.”
So, what is Jon’s view on site closures and tradespeople working?: “Stay at home, that’s been the guidance for some time now – if it’s not essential don’t do it. We need people to stay at home. We set a timeline of three weeks and it’s fair to say it won’t be three weeks is up and back to work, it’ll be three weeks is up and this is how we do things going forward.”
He continued: “People who are looking for this magic playbook for the next year won’t get it. What they’ll get is the fact that we have to change the way we do things on an almost weekly basis – and it doesn’t mean your business dies – the government have an economy that has to survive beyond this – it means you have to be more adaptable, think properly about things and get through the stages.”
So why does Jon think Certass TA is in a position to be able to provide this advice? “Our first priority was to create the right channels between us and the relevant government departments. I have daily correspondence with government and I’m the point of contact, so instead of the media version of the information and updates, we get the direct information.
“One of the things we do differently is we give a view; we don’t just say ‘here’s the info’, we say here’s the info, this is what it means to you, this is what we think of it, which makes us very accountable.”
He continued: “The next step is to take that information and guidance and give it to our members because once we understand what the real position is, we can then answer questions and concerns and use the forum to facilitate this. Our other job is feeding back views and concerns to government; it’s not a one-way dialogue.”
With regards to the some of the issues covered so far on the forum, Jon explained: “We’re looking at things like the impact of coronavirus on the welfare of staff, the rules that they put on furloughing employees – how will they apply? I’d say don’t furlough all your employees because you need to make sure your business is still connected in and is there when things recover; with the VAT implications, they haven’t said you don’t pay it, they’ve just said you pay it later.”
At the time of the interview, we’re waiting on the announcement of the support for the self-employed, possibly one of the most difficult issues to resolve for government. Jon explained: “At the moment, they’ve got to deal with the self-employed and then they’ve got to deal with the fallout of the self-employed announcement – Construction is a very big player in that territory.”
Jon continued: “The simple reality is there will be statements, a lot of confusion, a lot of self-employed people concerned both financially and for their mental well-being as a lack of financial stability can impact this greatly.”
In the days that followed the interview, the self-employed statement was made and as Jon predicted, the ambiguity around the announcement did throw-up a number of concerns. This highlighted how the forum can really function as a tool to assist installers with Jon fielding a number of questions from installers around issues such as who really qualified for the support and timeframes for implementation. Jon was able to provide practical advice and guidance to assist with members’ planning.
I ask Jon if he feels the government is doing enough for construction professionals in the current climate? “As a small business you will probably always say no, but it’s such a horrible balance at the moment at government level. What I would say is construction is very important to economic recovery and I think it’s fair to say we’re getting more than our fair share of air time.”
How does he think installers can protect themselves through what looks to be an on-going period of uncertainty? “It’s difficult to say, but I do think those who say ‘see you in two months’ will lose out. I’d say you need to think ‘how can I be there for tomorrow?’, as in there’s certain bills you need to pay. One thing I do worry about is people who say ‘I’ve cancelled all my Direct Debits’, and people are saying that. If you cancel a Direct Debit and you owe me £200, I will still sue you! CCJs and bad debt could put you out of business for a short-term gain!
“The money you owe government has been pushed down the line so you can pay these bills, not so you can cash build – pay your local suppliers.”
What does Jon feel we should learn from this situation? “What we’re learning from this situation is too many installers in our market are living hand to mouth – and it’s very short-termist; they look at their order book and as long as it’s ok for the next month or so, they’re happy and off they go. I think some installers need to think about the future a lot more.”
But Jon does feel there are reasons to be positive despite the current situation: “They (government) don’t want the country to stop and they don’t want to push people into poverty. They want to make sure we get through it – as a business you have to engage and be awake to the solutions that are out there.” And one-way Certass members can do this is to interact with the Certass TA Members Facebook Forum, it’s a valuable source of advice and guidance to support members in these difficult times.
Certass TA plans to open this information up to a wider audience in the near future.