News | Published May 06 2020

Global Tunnelling Experts MD writes open letter to government

The pressure put on the UK government to publish its exit strategy from the Covid-19 lockdown appears to have paid dividends this week, with prime minister Boris Johnson poised to unveil his “roadmap” out of lockdown on Sunday. Yet, one measure being considered as part of the plans is a proposed fourteen-day quarantine for all new arrivals into the UK, according to transport secretary Grant Shapps.

For one managing director, Kevin Browning of Global Tunnelling Experts [GTE] in Bristol, this proposal poses a whole new raft of problems, and he has written an open letter to the government this week, urging ministers to reconsider their position.

As part of the critical workforce, GTE has continued to operate throughout the pandemic thus far, as per government instructions.

Continuing with its current project at Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, Browning informs the government in his letter about how, rather remarkably, GTE has achieved an average of 20 metres of tunnelling per day during the lockdown.

In Browning's view, such substantial progress would not be possible were it not for a contingent of Irish nationals who comprise 15 per cent of the firm’s workforce.

For this segment of GTE staff, talk of a fourteen-day quarantine for new UK arrivals poses a serious problem.

As Browning explains, GTE's Irish workers tend to travel to the UK to work seven-day windows, before taking breaks between three to four days, during which they would typically return to Ireland.

A fourteen-day obligatory quarantine every time they would enter the country, it suffices to say, would not only be impractical, but it would prevent them from carrying out their work completely.

Browning sought to alert ministers as to the extent to which the tunnelling project would suffer as a result of the quarantine being enforced, alongside other safety and security risks associated with the move, which includes threatening the integrity of certain project sites.

Browning's full letter to the government,written on May 4, 2020, may be read below:

Dear Sir / Madam,

I am writing in response to the proposed fourteen-day quarantine for people entering the UK once travel restrictions are lifted, after it was confirmed yesterday [May 3] by the Secretary of State for Transport that the government is actively considering taking such a measure.

I fully understand the reasons for such a policy in relation to commercial and other non-essential travel but it is vital that any such measures include exceptions for critical workers, such as those involved with the current production at Hinkley Point C.

As instructed by the government, GTE [Global Tunnelling Experts] has continued our work at full production throughout the current pandemic, achieving an average of twenty metres of tunnelling per day. This is highly specialised work on a project of critical national importance and it would not be possible without the Irish nationals who comprise fifteen percent of our workforce.

These individuals work seven-day stretches followed by alternate breaks of three and four days. If they were required to quarantine for fourteen days every time they entered the UK, it would not be possible for the work to continue as planned, with huge consequences for the project, including potential safety and security risks.

We are currently tunnelling under the Bristol Channel and it is of the utmost importance that the Tunnel Boring Machine [TBM] is not left standing any longer than is absolutely necessary.

The risks of GTE stopping the production of the TBM are to name but a few of the major ones, potential ground squeeze, water ingress, and line and level being infected by ground fault zones.

A fourteen day quarantine for up to fifteen percent of our workers would therefore pose a risk that would far outweigh that of allowing them to travel from one neighbouring country to another.

Our workers operate in sterile environments with world-leading personal protective equipment. They stay overnight in a campus used exclusively by site workers and do not come into contact with the general public.

Owing to the nature of the Hinkley Point C project, workers must undergo extensive training and testing before beginning work, which typically takes six weeks. It would therefore be impossible to replace the Irish nationals with British nationals without causing a significant delay to the project and taking the risks associated with leaving a TBM standing for an extended period.

Our workers have already taken great sacrifices to keep this project progressing. For the past six weeks, they have spent every single hour onsite or at the campus, where they have eaten dinner at least two meters apart from each other and have been unable to frequent the on-campus bar or gym facilities, even though neither is accessible to the public and both could be used while maintaining social distancing measures.

If, on top of this, a policy were introduced that effectively prohibited short-term travel between Ireland and the UK, the overwhelming likelihood is that it would be impossible for us to comply with the government’s instructions to continue with full production and we would face the risks associated with the TBM.

I therefore urge the government to ensure that Hinkley Point C workers are exempted from the proposed quarantine.

Best regards,
Kevin Browning

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
May 06 2020

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