Bringing buildings back to life after the COVID-19 lockdown

While the current COVID-19 pandemic has emptied city centres, life will eventually get back to normal.

As soon as conditions allow, the UK will steadily return to work and commercial buildings will come back to life through occupation. As this happens, the safety of returning workers, tenants and the general public will remain a key priority for real estate owners and managers.

In the meantime, there’s still the need to maintain buildings from the point of view of security, statutory compliance, and insurance.

The big challenge is being ready to return buildings swiftly and safely to use. To help you plan for and achieve this, we’ve mapped out some of the key considerations below. 

Deep Clean

Scientists have discovered traces of the coronavirus on uncleaned surfaces up to 17 days after human occupation. But these were inactive, non-viable transmitters of the disease.

The latest studies appear to suggest that the virus can remain stable for up to 72 hours on plastic or steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and just four hours on copper. These results come from testing under lab conditions. In reality, environmental factors could accelerate these timelines - reducing the risk of infection from physical contact and also the viral loading.

In theory, if your building has been on complete lockdown since 23rd March or earlier, these timescales could suggest that there’s no need to carry out a deep-clean disinfection process. However, caution should be exercised. Are you certain no-one has entered the premises?

There are many reasons why workers might need to enter a building during lockdown. For example, to carry out essential IT maintenance or emergency repairs, or to respond to intruder alarms. They might be unable to work from home, or might need to collect equipment or reference materials they need for specific tasks.

Any one of these could affect the amount of time it takes for a building to become free of active virus traces. In case of any doubt, you would be well advised to arrange for a disinfectant clean-up before re-opening a property. For multi-tenanted offices, you should have a clear cleaning and reoccupation strategy in place. 

Ongoing disease risk management

Knowing that you’ve carried out a thorough deep clean before re-occupation can give workers and tenants a sense of protection. Although from the moment people move back in, you have a re-contamination risk to manage.

There is evidence that pandemics come in waves and recontamination often occurs after the isolation period is lifted. In the APAC countries where businesses are beginning to re-occupy premises, as well as the pre-occupation deep clean, other measures are being implemented:

  • access controls to the premises to include checks for COVID-19 and isolation areas and protocols, should a member of staff show symptoms;

  • retaining the frequent disinfectant cleaning regime of high traffic, communal workstation areas within the building, together with hand sanitiser stations;

  • reconfiguring workspaces, canteens/coffee stations, gyms and other common areas to accommodate ‘social distancing’.

This is likely to be part of the recalibration to the new normal.

Recommissioning Property

COVID-19 is not the only health risk you should consider when a building has been vacant for some time. Stagnant water in the cooling and hot water systems can provide a breeding ground for diseases like legionella.

If you’re the landlord - or if your tenancy or lease agreement makes you responsible - you would be well advised not to re-open a building before cooling systems have been tested and hot water systems flushed by contractors competent to carry out such work. Even if you are not contractually responsible, you should check this work has been done.

Plant and Machinery: Regulatory inspections of plant and machinery may have been delayed or cancelled during lockdown. Given the limited notice given, some plant and machinery may not have been properly de-commissioned. So consider appointing a competent person to carry out a re-commissioning inspection on any plant and machinery whose ‘upkeep’ you are responsible for.

Fire and Intruder Alarm systems: Hopefully neither of the alarms have needed to be activated and have remained operational during the lockdown. Although, as with other plant and equipment, if you are responsible for its upkeep and continuous inspection and maintenance is not considered ‘essential work’, then a competent person should undertake an initial re-commissioning test and inspection; including, if applicable, the fire suppression systems (e.g. sprinklers, mist, Ansul, etc.). The pre-lockdown inspection and maintenance regimes must also re-commence prior to re-occupation.

Kitchens: If your property has one or more commercial kitchens (rather than simply beverage and microwave stations) you should consider having these deep cleaned. In particular, extraction filters and ventilation flues should be thoroughly cleaned before re-opening. Congealed grease and dust particulates may have accumulated while the kitchen was out of use, creating a potential fire hazard up on reoccupation.

Gas and Electrical inspections: On 28th March the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) released updated guidance for landlords and tenants. Section Three, Property Access and Health and Safety Obligations, provides guidance on managing property maintenance during these unprecedented times. The following extract offers a flavour.

‘Landlords’ repair obligations have not changed. Good management requires regular review and maintenance of a property. We understand that planned inspections may be more difficult at this time. However, that is no reason to allow dangerous conditions to persist. In these unprecedented times, we encourage tenants and landlords to take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to non-urgent issues affected by COVID-19 related restrictions.’

Landlords should also make every effort to abide by existing gas and electrical safety regulations. There are provisions in both regulations for situations in which a landlord cannot do this. It is important you can demonstrate that you have taken all reasonable steps to comply with the law.

Property Security: With everything else that’s going on, it would be easy to overlook the fact that the UK’s national terrorism threat level remains at ‘substantial’, meaning that an attack is considered likely. So if your property has not benefited from security monitoring during lockdown, you would be well advised to carry out a perimeter inspection to check for any forced entry, damage, or suspect packages prior to re-occupation.

Our specialist risk management practice would like to support you with these proactive risk management measures and your usual dedicated Lockton contacts will be pleased to hear from you in the first instance.

Alternatively, please contact our real estate and construction specialists here (opens a new window) and we will be ready to respond to your enquiries.