Practical considerations in relation to the impact of coronavirus for ICAS firms
The world is currently facing the impact of coronavirus that has sent the capital markets tumbling and is leading to high levels of uncertainty across business and society.
No region appears likely to escape, this is truly a world-impacting episode. Below we highlight certain key matters that ICAS firms need to consider in these turbulent times – for themselves and their clients.
1. Business continuity plan
One of the first matters that requires consideration is the firm’s business continuity plan (BCP). Is this up to date with all the required procedures to be implemented? Does it contain all the correct contact details for members of staff? Do all members of staff have details of the relevant matters pertaining to them and are they aware of what is expected of them?
This is particularly pertinent given that more and more people are now working from home and the UK Government is currently advising people to work from home where they possibly can. This advice may even reach a higher level in the coming days/weeks. Therefore, have all IT systems therefore been tested to ensure employees can work effectively from home? Do staff have all the right equipment and indeed access to broadband/wi-fi to help facilitate this?
Employees should be reminded, where applicable, to take their IT equipment e.g. laptops home each evening in case the office has to be closed e.g. for enhanced cleaning processes. Also, do staff have access to appropriate IT support if working from home?
Effective communication throughout the firm and with clients and other key contacts will be even more essential during these times. Therefore, are all employee details readily available? Is there a central communication hub to keep all employees up to date? If staff cannot access such a hub are regular updates to be provided by email and text, and if so, have appropriate personnel been assigned these tasks?
2. Filing deadlines
As part of the BCP or separately, is there a plan in place to ensure that all filing deadlines (accounting, tax etc) are met, should individual partners and members of staff etc fall sick? Is there is a risk that any of these are unlikely to be met? If so, have all relevant parties been notified, including Companies House? ICAS highlighted the latest advice from Companies House in the article published on 17 March 2020. If more time is then you must apply for more this.
Is there a centralised client management system that enables easy access to authorised personnel to identify all such deadlines?
It is likely that there will be a greater need for collaborative working and for all staff to pull together as one team to help the firm function effectively and efficiently as possible.
3. Tax liabilities/payments
For those who are unable to pay taxes (VAT and PAYE) due to coronavirus, HMRC will discuss your specific circumstances to explore:
- agreeing an instalment arrangement
- suspending debt collection proceedings
- cancelling penalties and interest where you have administrative difficulties contacting or paying HMRC immediately.
The helpline number is 0800 0159 559 - and is an addition to other HMRC phone contact numbers.
In line with current Government advice, firms should, where possible, encourage staff to work from home. This is particularly the case where staff are having to use public transport. This reduces, but of course does not remove, the risk of employees catching coronavirus.
Consideration should also be given to restricting office car parking space (where available) to key personnel or to those employees who have furthest to travel. Firms should also recognise the need for staff to be flexible in relation to the hours that they will work at home. If a decision is made to close the schools, then this will become particularly pertinent. The focus should be on ensuring key outcomes are achieved and having trust in employees to do this when they are best able.
Timetables on all engagements may need to be revised as firm staff or client staff may be ill and this could delay the compilation of information. Firms should be proactive in discussing planned engagement or service timetables with clients whilst accepting that even revised timetables may be subject to sudden change given the fluidity of the situation. These timetables should be regularly revisited to allow for likely interruption to the engagement and potentially the increased time it will take companies to prepare their respective information.
For services such as payroll being provided to clients, consideration needs to be given to alternative procedures to be employed if key staff on such services are absent.
5. Awareness and responsibility
Firms should ensure that all partners and staff are aware of the latest Government advice e.g. that people should start working from home whenever they possibly can. If this advice is not followed, then they most certainly should not come into the office if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19. For firms who do not introduce mandatory home working they should also ensure that all prevention measures are in place in the office e.g. soap is provided, and that staff are reminded of the Government’s advice to properly wash their hands on a regular basis.
Firms need to ensure that they are regularly revisiting the respective advice from the UK and Scottish Governments. They also need to ensure that they keep up to date with any updates from the respective Governments which will be issued daily.
6. Go virtual and reduce risk
Firms should preferably ban all external and potentially internal meetings, regardless of numbers. Virtual meetings should be utilised wherever possible. There is, of course, a need to ensure such meetings are secure if confidential information is being discussed. Consideration should also be given to postponing external engagements and partners and staff should not attend external events. Where possible, clients should also be advised not to attend the firm’s premises. Appropriate measures may need to be put in place to facilitate the signing of accounts and other documents.
All business travel should be banned unless such matters are business-critical and cannot be covered virtually. Such an approach needs to be led by those at the top of the firm.
Firms should also consider having regular conference calls with staff to help maintain team spirit.
7. Begin preparing for the situation to escalate
Firms should put in place plans to cover potential forthcoming Government actions such as closing the schools for an extended period in the coming weeks. This again emphasises the need for a flexible working approach.
8. Firm procedures if staff fall ill whilst on the firm’s premises
For those firms who continue to allow staff to work on their premises (until told otherwise), they should have procedures in place to deal with any member of staff becoming unwell who is displaying symptoms. All staff members need to be informed of these procedures.
9. Technical queries on matters relating to the implications of the coronavirus
Contact the ICAS query portal if issues arise re financial reporting, company law deadlines, audit opinions etc on matters related to implications of coronavirus.
Remember, we are here to help. By working together, we can get through this crisis.