Public health and personal safety are paramount: Archaeological site work should not be continuing whilst the current national coronavirus protection measures are in place. It is not an essential service and the travel involved is not necessary.
As at late March 2020 Government guidance says one should only go to work outside one’s home if the work cannot be done at home, and guidance includes maintaining social distancing (2m) from other people. Some archaeological contractors have stopped work on sites requiring more than one archaeologist, while others have ceased site work altogether, at present. Another choice has been to implement enhanced sanitary provision, such as providing additional site huts, and to continue with archaeological fieldwork, presumably with individuals making their own travel arrangements.
Some building contractors have stopped work on current projects, while others are continuing.
RESCUE hopes that all non-essential construction work will be stopped, and with it the archaeological fieldwork, and urges government to take this measure.
Immediate impacts on the archaeological resource include the effect of some sites being left open, the archaeology exposed to the elements.
It isn’t clear what will happen to the archaeology if an archaeological contractor decides not to attend a site where work is continuing. Would the client search for an alternative willing archaeological firm or carry on regardless? In the circumstance where a construction company has ‘been let down’ by an archaeological contractor where does the liability lie? What level of enforcement might the hard-pressed Local Planning Archaeologists take? What risk of litigation are those archaeological contractors who put their people first taking?
What is the financial viability of those contractors who have decided that sites cannot be made safe? The government has agreed to pay 80% of the wages of staff laid off in order that they might retain their employment status, but when will this money come into the coffers? Cash-flow rather than profitability is often the killer for small, low margin companies such as many archaeological contractors.
Closure of an archaeological contractor raises issues about the completion of unfinished projects and the safe deposition of archives.
On balance, we would prefer to see all non-essential construction ended for the time being, with sites closed to construction workers and archaeologists: ensuring safety for individuals and archaeology. At the same time, security measures should be in place for the protection of the public and the heritage resource.
Similar problems are occurring in other parts of the heritage sector, for example independent museums.
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