Throughout 2020, a number of sectors were heavily relied upon to protect the public in the fight against COVID-19. For good reason, the healthcare sector took centre stage, with key workers in the grocery sector also heralded for keeping the nation fed and watered through periods of lockdown and self-isolation.
However, some vital professions flew under the radar. Back in April, BBC News published a report entitled ‘Coronavirus: Are hospital cleaners forgotten heroes in this crisis?’ asking whether the people making sure hospitals are free of germs should be getting more of a voice. It’s a fair observation considering a September audit of British Cleaning Council (BCC) members found that organisations and individuals in this sector have been forced to rapidly adapt their processes and operations due to the virus.
Additionally, the sector faced disruption due to extreme market fluctuations. Where demand was high for healthcare cleaners, those with contracts for business premises faced greater uncertainty. In Cleaning Hygiene Today, Jim Melvin, director at the Cleaning and Support Services Association (CSSA) and Deputy Chair at the BCC, highlighted the challenges brought upon by the virus: “Coronavirus has changed the contract cleaning market significantly, but it is different for every business. A great many buildings and businesses remain closed, and many staff are furloughed. When clients have returned, they are at significantly reduced staff levels, which by definition reduces the service.
“Clients are changing their requirements on an almost daily basis, and members are needing to be agile and flexible enough to reflect that. Our cleaning and hygiene operatives have faced an unbelievably difficult and fearful time responding both bravely and magnificently to all this.”
The same volatility affected another unsung hero of the pandemic. While the easing of lockdown in 2020 was excellent news for many businesses, commercial waste management and collection companies saw the gradual lifting of the rules exacerbate the challenges it already faced.
In the first two weeks of lockdown, an estimated quarter of all UK companies temporarily closed their doors, meaning the need for waste services plummeted. When they were permitted to reopen, organisational steps had to be taken before any promise of 'business as usual'. For example, itineraries must be carefully and cost-effectively planned to accommodate time restrictions, disruptions and other difficulties such as inaccessible routes.
The easing of the lockdown rules saw businesses sporadically open at short notice (while a great many remained working remotely), which forced last-minute reroutes to ensure waste collection could resume. Those expecting to return to the same pre-COVID service found waste suppliers had taken alternative contracts in sectors that had remained open, resulting in changes to pick-up days or, in the worst case, missed collections.
Additionally, some reopening businesses had accumulated lockdown waste due to additional cleaning, refurbishing or dead stock. This placed a strain on waste management companies with pick-up times and vehicle types needing to be revised. Speaking of vehicles, street closures and pavement extensions to allow for social distancing in city-centres and busy areas provided additional access issues.
In July 2020, Nottingham University announced it would be conducting an 18-month investigation into how exactly the pandemic has affected the UK waste sector. The project will be led by a team of experts, including Dr Thom Davies in the Faculty of Social Sciences. He said: “We know that coronaviruses persist on materials that people regularly dispose of in their domestic waste. On plastics and stainless steel surfaces, COVID-19 can survive for well over 72 hours. This potentially places workers at higher risk. The waste industry plays a vital and often-overlooked role in everyone's lives. It is really important to understand how it is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As 2021 kicks off with a third nationwide lockdown, we look forward to what the rest of the year has in store for the cleaning and waste management sectors. For cleaning, there’s much discussion surrounding collaborative robots - or cobots as they’re also known - which work alongside cleaning teams to undertake repetitive and time-consuming tasks that free up staff to focus on critical jobs like deep cleaning and sanitation.
When it comes to the bigger picture of waste management, we are likely to see valuable pre-COVID work continue to ensure the UK moves towards a greener, more resource-secure future. Until then, these sector professionals, along with those in cleaning, can rightfully take their place as valued key workers in our ongoing fight against the coronavirus.
For more industry insights and advice from the experts at PRS, stay tuned to our blog. Alternatively, if you're looking to connect with top talent or are a cleaning professional looking for your next exciting role, get in touch with our team today to find out how we can help.