Editor’s Viewpoint: Déjà vu. Again…

Editor’s Viewpoint: Déjà vu. Again…

In his column in PBM’s January issue, editor Paul Davies considers the rise of the Omicron varient and discusses the industry’s challenges as we enter 2022.

Warmest New Year wishes to all, and welcome to PBM’s first issue of 2022. We start by reflecting on 2021 as being another extraordinary year as Covid-19 continued to rumble on, and we’ve all had to contend with its seismic aftershocks. The lifting of numerous restrictions and the end of furlough in the latter half of the year have perhaps allowed us to enjoy (if that’s the right word…) a greater sense of pre-pandemic normality, but the ominous shadow of coronavirus has lingered in the background.

Now, writing this in the run-up to Christmas with the Omicron variant multiplying rapidly, there’s an uneasy sense of stepping into the unknown once again. Whilst it seems universally accepted that Omicron spreads at a much faster rate than previous strains, it is unclear how severe its effects might be. And even if it is less damaging than its forebears, the sheer number of potential cases may still have the capacity to overwhelm the NHS and cause significant business disruption.

And at this stage of the pandemic, the correlation between the nation’s health and the nation’s economy should be crystal clear. Similarly, the balance has to be struck between accepting sensible mitigations to prevent the disease getting out of control, or taking no action and running the risk of more serious restrictions having to be reintroduced further down the line.

“Whilst this government has been forced throughout to eventually act against its non-interventionist instincts, this time it does at least seem to have shut the stable door before the horse has bolted.”

We’re now almost two years into this (and how innocent do those early ‘three weeks to flatten the curve…’ calls seem now?) and it is not going away anytime soon. And whilst this government has been forced throughout to eventually act against its non-interventionist instincts, this time it does at least seem to have shut the stable door before the horse has bolted. We’ll know much more in a few weeks, but for now at least, we must all hope this is a success.

More positively, we can enter the New Year with a high hopes for the performance of the construction sector. We will begin conducting our annual survey of the nation’s leading merchant firms in a few weeks, but most evidence suggests that trading has largely returned to — or even exceeds — 2019 levels.

Despite some minor wobbles, most industry metrics maintain an upward trajectory and trade customers across all disciplines are reporting sustained demand for their services. Many larger scale projects also look set to pick up the pace after the interruptions of the last 18 months or more.

And as reported later in the issue, there are also burgeoning signs that some of supply side problems are beginning to ease off. Conditions will undoubtedly remain challenging, but the industry appears to be in robust shape.

For the longer term of course, the sector must still confront its many underlying ‘structural challenges’. For merchants, this means strategies to evaluate the opportunities and threats posed by, for instance, demographic and behavioural shifts of their customer base, digitalisation in terms of product data and ecommerce, the growth of MMC building, carbon reduction and sustainability and — not least — issues relating to the recruitment and retention of staff.

Whilst it may be too much to hope that 2022 will consign the disruption of the last few years to history, the merchant sector has rolled with the punches and is undoubtedly in a stronger place for the experience. With such resilience at its core, there can be no doubt that it will also succeed in tackling whatever else is to come.

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