A new lockdown exit plan unveiled by UK prime minister Boris Johnson to restart the British economy has left the property sector seeking clarity on how to reopen workplaces across the country.
While the latest guidelines encourage workers to operate remotely where possible, the plan foresees the relaunch of offices, retail outlets, hotels and industry in the coming weeks, creating a raft of challenges for property owners and tenants.
As landlords grapple with the challenge of redesigning premises, company owners also fear for the safety of their employees, and the viability of their business models with social distancing in place.
Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation said: 'We urgently need the government to publish the detail in its back-to-work papers and what public health guidance will apply as more people return to their places of work and have more freedom to enjoy public spaces.
'The overwhelming priority is to make sure that people are safe, but businesses will need time to prepare for and apply this guidance. As property owners and managers we have a critical role to play and we will work with our tenants in offices, warehouses and shops to support them and to make sure that the public spaces we are responsible for are safely managed.'
Construction sites reopen
This week saw construction firms get the green light to reopen building sites, with UK housebuilder Weston Homes sending its workers back to its projects across London and the Home Counties as of 11 May. The firm has about 7,000 units in the pipeline worth a completed value of around £3 bn (€3.42 bn).
Weston Homes said it would be maintaining self-distancing at two metres on all projects, and creating one-way pedestrian traffic routes through sites, walkways and buildings where possible by the installation of items such as signposted routes and temporary external stairways.
Wash stations and enhanced cleaning regimes are also being brought in, while the firm said that for internal fit out work, individual apartments and houses would be limited to two people at any one time. Staggered break times will mean workers eating food brought from home in isolation.
Bob Weston, chairman of Weston Homes said: 'We have reviewed every aspect of our site activities and implemented strict procedures in order to fully comply with the restrictions imposed by social distancing and health safeguarding requirements. We are confident that we have a robust and comprehensive set of guidelines which mean that we can operate our construction sites safely and comply with strict social distancing requirements.'
Other firms said they were exploring high-tech solutions to return to work, with the UK's CoreTech Solutions unveiling a new temperature screening product, Agora Temperature Screening, which could help in the fight against the transmission of the coronavirus in public spaces.
The screening camera works by not only detecting the elevated skin temperature of individuals, but also flagging the information to front desk personnel in buildings via tailored software. It has been produced in partnership with security surveillance specialist IndigoVision.
Phil Cox, managing director of CoreTech Solutions commented: 'Our partnership with IndigoVision enables us to use our complementary industry knowledge and expertise to deliver solutions that will help restore confidence to the market, and aid the long-term recovery of businesses and organisations across the UK.'
Meanwhile, digital technology firm Reevo 360, which provides virtual tours, photography, CGIs and floorplans for properties, said it was offering property clients including developers, estate agents and private individuals the use of Hazmat suits for site viewings.
The gear comprises an impermeable whole-body garment, complete with special face-mask and eye-goggles. The suits provide respiratory protection, and protection against chemicals, biological agents or other harmful materials, and require a stringent decontamination protocol post-visit.
Investment market prospects
While stuttering rent collections and tenancy distress have become a hallmark of the crisis, Nick Clayton, an investment director for global co-investment platform Astarte Capital Partners, suggested that the same pressures could produce a positive effect for equity-rich investors going forward.
'As in any recession, distress will create opportunities when owners are over levered or have unstable financing structures. We are very early in this process at the moment, with unique features of this pandemic-created crisis, and with little visibility on the other side, so it is too early to draw many conclusions,' Clayton said.
'A V-shaped recovery is highly optimistic, and more likely, a return to normality will be a series of fits and starts (see the experience of Singapore, which has had to employ a lockdown after new cases spiked),' he added. 'On a positive note, anecdotally word out of China is that where the economy is returning from the lockdown, landlords have been surprised on the upside on the amount of rent collected, reaching around 85% of pre-crisis levels.'