Vauxhall set to restart car production amid coronavirus crisis


One of Britain’s largest carmakers is planning to restart production after putting in place new safety measures, as the government comes under pressure to outline its strategy for bringing different sectors of the economy out of lockdown.

Vauxhall is putting in place measures to protect workers. Staff will clean workstations every hour, wear personal protective equipment including face masks, and remain two metres apart at all times as the company seeks to reopen its factory at Ellesmere Port, in the Wirral.

The company, owned by France’s Peugeot, has not yet fixed a firm date for restarting, but could reopen within weeks, depending on the successful completion of audits of the measures. Within three weeks of restarting the plants managers hope to be running at about 85% of capacity.

The plant, which employs about 1,100 workers making Astra cars, was one of the first to close on 17 March. Every other large automotive factory across the UK has since shut down.

Companies across the economy are considering reopening. Burger King and KFC have reopened some sites for delivery only, while Pret a Manger is doing deliveries and takeaways.

Luxury carmaker Bentley said on Thursday it was extending the shutdowns of its Crewe plant until 11 May, but then hoped to hit full production a week later.

There is no legal block on manufacturers reopening factory gates. The government’s guidelines, which explicitly reference manufacturers, state that people may travel to work as long as they cannot work from home and they are not self-isolating or displaying symptoms of Covid-19.

However, most of the UK’s large factories remain closed as companies work out how to protect their workers. Thousands of workers have been furloughed, with the government paying 80% of their wages under its jobs retention scheme.

David Connell, human resources director for Groupe PSA, told the Guardian that the company had been working on plans to restart production ever since they shut down, as long as they could guarantee worker safety.

He said the company had developed processes to allow workers to return in a “safe and responsible manner”. The protocols, which have been discussed with unions, will make the factory “safer than many of the other areas that people go to on a daily basis” such as supermarkets.

Measures introduced include:

  • All workers will be required to keep a diary of their temperature for two weeks before returning, with compulsory temperature checks at the factory gate.
  • Shifts will be rescheduled to prevent crowding at entrances and exits, and different functions will be assigned separate gates.
  • Workers will wear face masks and eye protection at all times, and masks will be changed twice a day.
  • All doors will be wedged open to minimise contact, while toilets will be cleaned every hour.
  • Access to shared facilities such as changing rooms and lockers will be controlled to maintain distancing, with one-way systems where possible in toilets. Hand dryers will be replaced with paper towels.
  • All kitchen facilities will be closed.
  • Rest areas have been moved to unenclosed spaces that allow two metre distancing.
  • The government is balancing its desire for people to stay in work – limiting the economic damage of lockdown – against concerns that any easing of lockdown could allow the virus to spread.

Other manufacturers have taken a more cautious approach to reopening, with a source at another major carmaker with UK operations saying it was too early.

One concern across the car industry is the lack of demand for new products, with showrooms likely to remain closed and the prospect of a big rise in unemployment hitting spending power.

Connell said: “We need to be able to get back to production, but the other part of the equation is that there needs to be an end customer. That’s a challenge.”

Following the government’s announcement that lockdown would remain in place for a further three weeks, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-General, said it was the right decision and had “ the full support of business.”

However, she added: “It’s not too early to start to plan, cautiously and with public health paramount, for the revival of our economy.”