Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Coronavirus: its impact on our roles in arboriculture

Author:  Jenny Long
Last Updated:  26/08/2020

Jenny Long, Director of Chapel Tree Services, Association Trustee and Chair of Media & Communications Committee

There is no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent pandemic is an event that has changed our entire world and is a threat on a scale that most of us living today have never seen before.

To be locked down at home, unable to carry out our normal, everyday activity, see our families or friends or for some even leave the house, has been very challenging. With the fear of actually contracting the virus, losing loved ones or livelihoods now being replaced with the fear of what the new world will look like as we emerge from our isolated bubble, it has been a stressful and worrying time.

Within my own company, a small tree services contracting business in south Herefordshire, we simply shut down when the initial lockdown order came. For three weeks we stayed at home and tried to juggle overheads and consider how long we could survive with no work, whilst endeavouring to reassure our staff that everything would be fine.

We were relieved and grateful for the Arb Association’s support in getting clarification on whether arb businesses could work, and, with a cautious green light, we brought one team of freelancers back first, albeit with a raft of control measures in place. Gradually over the next two months we brought all three teams back to work, unfurloughing our direct staff, bringing all freelancers back – and the support from our customers has been wonderful.

With so many people now at home, and their gardens becoming such an important asset in these times when many things are off limits, our domestic tree work has exploded.

People are delighted to see our teams, and I have had to allow more time to do quotes as so many of our customers are very isolated and want to chat even more than usual! With domestic work pouring in and a contract for power line clearance to keep the network running, we are relieved to see we are coming out the other side, although we are very aware that the recession may slow things down again all too soon. For now though we are all well, we are back to work and we have much more appreciation than ever for the beautiful rural county in which we have been able to survive lockdown in relative peace and safety, and in which, for now, our business thrives.

Here three of the Arb Association’s Media & Communications committee, all with very different roles within arboriculture, tell us about their experiences.

Stephen Bones, Technical & Compliance Manager

Following Boris’s speech on 23 March we sent the teams home while we considered what this meant for the business. The following day we held an emergency management meeting to review government guidance and how to proceed. Whilst initially the guidance stipulated all non-essential businesses should close, it soon became apparent we could carry on provided we observed social distancing, indeed our top clients were still operating and required our services.

This presented both moral and practical dilemmas. Should we close for the safety of our staff? What would be the financial impact on staff and the business if we did? How could we operate safely if we carried on?

As Compliance Manager, the board looked to me for guidance. My view was clear; we have 30 families who rely on the business being here not just for the next three months, but for the long term. They rely on us to pay their mortgage and put food on the table. We faced an uncertain financial future and almost certainly a recession. We had built a stock of industrial wipes, hand sanitizers and masks. It was therefore my strong belief that we should carry on, not just for the business but for our employees’ future.

We furloughed three members of staff with underlying health conditions, implemented social distancing, introduced one person per vehicle (where this wasn’t possible both driver and passenger wore fitted FFP3 masks) and reminded staff about the importance of good hygiene, especially after visiting shops/garages. We implemented daily washing of vehicles inside and out, tools and plant being sterilized and staff starting at staggered times to reduce contact.

Three months later as I write this I reflect on those decisions. Did we get it right? Should we have shut down? I still believe we did the right thing. We have suffered financially, but not to the extent we would have if we had closed the doors. I believe we are currently seeing a false bubble and that a downturn will hit at the end of the year. As the furlough scheme comes to a close many businesses are laying off staff or closing down completely. We are facing a recession and we need to make sure we are as financially as strong as possible when it arrives. We have a strong order book and we go into the back end of the year with jobs for every member of staff. For me that was the most important point: making sure our staff, the colleagues we call family, still have jobs for the long term. The social impacts of unemployment are huge for individuals and families.

At WilbyTree we are carrying on this new normal. Now the new requirements are ingrained into everyone we are seeing benefits. The offices, workshops and vehicles are the cleanest they have ever been. This is great for company image. We haven’t lost clients who continued to operate, meaning our order book is strong and we can keep all staff in jobs.

I don’t doubt there will be more challenges ahead but each week we implement something new to keep our staff safe; this week it has been the introduction of digital thermometers to take everyone’s temperature at the start of the day. This is all part of our first commitment to our staff and their families, to protect them now and protect their jobs for the future. They are the greatest asset we have; they are the reason our clients value the service we offer.

Kirsty McNicol, Training Manager

Kirsty McNicol, Training Manager

Coronavirus has affected my role as Training Manager in both good and bad ways. I took the decision to suspend all training in March as soon as the government put distancing and lockdown measures in place. This meant an instant reduction in my team’s work. Being part of a large arb company meant two of my team could be transferred over to operational utility cutting teams, classed as key work. Thankfully, when we contacted people to postpone training, all the candidates and companies booked on courses were understanding of our reasons for postponing and were happy to wait until we are able to restart training. We have considered our options on how to restart courses and will be resuming some from July with reduced candidate numbers and adaptations to teaching methods.

When lockdown came into force in March we were at the start of our Spring Utility Arborist Fast Track programme, so as well as needing to postpone all our general courses I had to plan how we could keep our training programme going for our four new trainees. As well as providing them with topics to study at home we have managed to schedule one-on-one training for those who are near Exeter. We have adapted courses to allow for 2m distancing and are slowly getting to grips with producing e-learning materials and the use of Zoom!

We have used the last three months to get ahead on our LOLER (Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations) inspection programme – we inspect over 500 kits a year for Hi-Line as well as kits for other companies and climbers. We’ve also used the time to redesign some of our course materials and course content, to clear up and carry out maintenance on our training woodlands, to catch up on lots of filing (!) and most recently to update our training centre to allow for 2m distancing on classroom-based courses.

I think it will be a while before training is back to how it was prior to Covid-19. There is uncertainty with the economy and I think this will impact on training budgets. Being flexible in our approach will be essential over the year ahead. Although initially it felt very frustrating to see everything we have worked so hard to build up over the last couple of years suddenly stop, I think we now see it as an opportunity to reflect on all we have done in developing Hi-Line Training as an independent training provider over the past few years and to review how we want to move forward. The last three months have given us a chance to do this, and having visited one of our training woodlands today, I can say it has also given our woodlands a chance to rest and recuperate from our enthusiastic candidates!

Alan Rowe, Tree Officer

On 13 March, before I left the Council Offices in Camborne to start my two weeks of annual leave, I cleared all my emails and got up to date with all of my current work, including tree preservation order (TPO) requests and enforcement visits, fully expecting to return on 30 March refreshed and ready to go.

The first week off was good: the sun shone and I hired a scaffold tower to clean my roof and gutters and painted the soffits and fascias, then climbed on the roof with rope and harness to put a roll of wire around the chimney to deter seagulls. Then came 23 March and the world and society changed, maybe forever. Cornwall Council (CC) was quick to issue instructions that all work was to be done from home unless that was not possible, and site visits were paused. The main function of my role within CC is to deal with all new TPO requests to determine if a TPO should be issued and to follow up enforcement complaints and condition compliance, as well as giving ad hoc advice on anything that comes through Planning with the words tree, shrub, hedge, hedgerow etc. on it. So a large part of my role is undertaking site visits, doing amenity assessments or asset valuations, and gathering evidence, much of which needs to be done on site.

Due to my workload I have for several years, where possible, undertaken desktop studies using aerial photos and street-level imagery but there are many sites where a visit has to be done because of the complexity of the issue, the remote nature of the trees or the fact that illegal tree works might be taking place at that moment. I realised that I was going to have a problem as tree work would be continuing and many householders would be in their garden more than usual and perhaps prepared to undertake the works themselves, so the safety net of a reputable contractor being involved and giving sound advice would be lost. I wrote up some emergency Coronavirus procedures to try to deal with the issues, and managers gave me dispensation as a key worker to undertake individual site visits when absolutely essential and with management approval.

It’s been a difficult period for us all and no doubt in time tree works will come to light that were illegally undertaken, but hopefully they will be minimal and CC can decide on a case-by-case basis how to tackle them.

I would like to finish with some positive thoughts, though, as this situation has pushed people to use more technology for meetings and chats and the resulting reduction in traffic has had many environmental benefits. People now seem to have a greater appreciation of the great outdoors, and it has been good for wildlife with fewer people around. This crisis has proved to me what I have long suspected in life: it’s people that are the problem!

This article was taken form Issue 190 Autumn 2020 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.