Talking point: The COVID-19 pandemic
The ongoing pandemic has hit all countries hard, in terms of both health and the economy. But, more specifically, how has the situation affected the road industry?
"All the key players are working together to achieve the best possible result."
Katri Eskola Specialist Road Maintenance Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency
So far, we can confirm that no significant problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been reported by the road industry in Finland. Contractors took substantial direct precautionary measures to prevent the effects of the pandemic, and were consequently able to carry out the roadworks as originally planned.
During the initial stage in spring 2020, it became clear that the lockdown had reduced the number of people travelling on roads and railways. Later in the summer, most Finns spent their holidays in Finland, which increased the number of vehicles on the roads. This in turn meant an increase in the need for ongoing maintenance.
To be able to effectively monitor the situation that had arisen because of COVID-19, the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency convened a group of experts at an early stage. The measures implemented made it possible to continue projects in progress, despite the traffic restrictions. All government employees were told to work remotely until August, and almost all meetings have been held online. However, work in the field has continued without problems caused by the pandemic.
To stimulate the economy, the Finnish government allocated extra money to certain areas including the road sector. The money was used in the first instance for periodic maintenance and rehabilitation of asphalt pavements on roads and pavements.
The extra money is needed to improve the condition of the road network. Furthermore, the low price of bitumen has made it possible to extend the Finnish paving programme. All the key players in the asphalt market are working together to achieve the best possible result in a challenging situation caused by COVID-19 and an all-time high paving programme. Now both road owners and contractors are hoping that the higher volume will extend over 2021 and that the pandemic will not cause a shortage of resources in 2021.
"This enabled us to keep up with demand, seizing the opportunity to repair roads whilst traffic was light."
Managing Director of Ronez in The Channel Islands
Outstanding cooperation between Nynas, their haulier, the local authorities and ourselves ensured that we could overcome the unprecedented challenges we faced during the COVID 19 lockdown period. Our asphalt plants are essential for keeping traffic moving on both Jersey and Guernsey. As our long-standing supplier, Nynas usually delivers bitumen on a weekly basis to both islands in road tankers using the ro-ro ferry from Portsmouth.
When the pandemic hit, restrictions were put in place to limit the movement of people. Passengers were no longer allowed on the ferries, which meant that the drivers couldn’t accompany the freight, and there were very few flights to the islands. However, as on-site bitumen discharge requires specially trained and qualified drivers, we had to find a way of safely bringing these to the islands.
Nynas UK Health and Safety Manager Paul Lamb, Sales Manager Chris Rhodes and the rest of the UK sales and logistics team acted very quickly to put in place a solution, shipping multiple unaccompanied tankers whilst flying one driver to enable their safe discharge. This was organised with the help of Suttons Transport Services, so that three dedicated drivers could travel on a rota using secure taxis and isolating in hotels, with the whole process needing approval each time from the Customs and Immigration Services who were controlling these “Life Line” routes for essential supplies.
Although it involved lots of organisation and logistics, we had the first delivery under this protocol at the beginning of April, shortly after lockdown. This enabled us to keep up with demand for asphalt on the islands, seizing the opportunity to repair roads whilst traffic was light.
Since August, Jersey’s arrival testing regime has allowed some restrictions to be eased, but it’s still a tricky operation and at Ronez we remain really grateful to Nynas.
"A better understanding of the socio-economic benefit of a well-managed road network"
Johanna Andréasson Marketing Manager Nynas Bitumen
During 2020 we have experienced an almost unprecedented situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures taken to limit the spread of the virus vary from country to country. The effect on the road construction sector has also varied; from almost no effect in Northern Europe to a very marked contraction in the southern part. The industry has been impacted both from a slowdown in certain markets due to lockdowns and an increased demand in others due to fiscal stimulus packages. The price dynamics caused by the dramatic reduction in fuel demand has also affected the industry.
What can we expect when the pandemic is over? A comparison with the financial crisis in 2008 shows that demand for bitumen did not fall until a few years after the crisis started, thanks to the fiscal stimulus package that was quickly rolled out. It resulted in increased activity during the initial phase of the crisis, with an all-time high demand seen in 2010.
However, a few years later we saw the most dramatic European market reduction in decades. The backlog in road maintenance that resulted from this still poses a challenge for the most affected countries.
Even though the current situation is unique, the question remains: How do we make sure that the pattern from the financial crisis does not repeat itself after the pandemic?
It is of course difficult to predict what will happen; we are still in the midst of the pandemic and no one knows the full impact. But hopefully there is now a better understanding of the socio-economic benefit of a well-managed road network. In order to make sure the strong slump is not seen again, stakeholders both inside and outside the road construction industry should raise their voices. In order to grow, we need our roads to work!