Coronavirus compliance and your practice
Philip Fisher warns accountants of the need for extra vigilance in compliance with coronavirus legislation. He worries the pandemic will put many running practices into an invidious position with a real risk of disastrous consequences.
We live in a nightmarish world that, at the beginning of the year, would have seemed like something out of science fiction.
As we have seen in the last week, there have been so many changes to the rules and laws around coronavirus that even those making them, ie our esteemed Prime Minister, lose track of how they are supposed to operate.
It is very easy to be facetious about what has become an unintelligible mess with daily amendments, the distinction between guidance and legislation blurred and different rules for different districts of the same city, let alone regions or countries.
To make matters worse, MPs, ministers, advisers and even the President of the United States of America, seem to believe that, while they might be creating the legislation, they don’t necessarily need to comply with it themselves.
As an observation, is it just coincidence that the leaders of three of the four countries with the worst records for coronavirus deaths have now been victims?
The uncertainty and lack of compliance could present unique problems to accountants, who are required to operate with impeccable integrity at all times.
Breaching pandemic laws and regulations
It is my guess that every single person reading this article knows of friends, colleagues and maybe even family members (not themselves of course) who have either deliberately or inadvertently breached government guidelines or even broken newly implemented laws.
After all, it is far too easy to get sucked into following the masses when you discover that, according to estimates from reliable sources, over 80% of those who are obliged to quarantine having returned from overseas failed to do so.
Similarly, depending upon where you are in the Kingdom on any day, it may be illegal to mix with six other people, people from two other households or, at the extreme, any outsider indoors or in a garden.
Other new bits of legislation that have proved popular with those who like breaking the law include the obligation to wear masks on public transport and in shops and the requirement to self-isolate if you or your latest shiny, new app gets too close to anybody who has tested positive for the virus. This latter point would appear to extend to coming into contact with anybody has come into contact with somebody who has tested positive. Or does it?
The accountant dilemma
With hundreds of law changes appear over a very short period of time, often flip-flopping around and some introduced as guidance and later turned into legislation, it is very hard to be certain as to exactly what is a law, what is advice and what is merely a rumour leaked to a national newspaper.
But what has this got to do with the accountancy profession? Unfortunately, because we have to abide by all laws, at risk of losing our professional qualifications and our jobs, if not necessarily our freedom, we must take additional care.
As an example, it would be horrible to find your career destroyed as a result of going with your spouse and three kids to see granny and grandpa (unless you are Scottish). Similarly, while it is certainly a bind getting stuck indoors for two weeks having had no idea on departing that a trip to (say) France for a couple of days with ending these kinds of tears. However, accountants have no choice but to comply.
It gets worse. Not only do we have to watch our own steps very carefully but also make sure that our colleagues are seen to be cleaner than clean.
Ignoring the fact that by breaking the law, members of staff or partners could provoke a fortnight-long office closure, to use an example, if your whole audit team celebrated the junior member’s 21st birthday, unless your practice is very small, that would constitute a criminal offence.
Given the admonition of the Home Secretary to stop anybody who has been breaking the law in this way, presumably, a principal would be obliged to notify the police, followed by the ICAEW or equivalent, thereby wrecking his or her business and destroying numerous careers.
Some might feel that the obvious solution is to turn a blind eye to breaches of laws that seem to be highly technical and, some (MPs) might argue unnecessary, but that would put into question our own integrity.
In the current economic and social climate, life is hard enough already without these additional concerns to give us sleepless nights but that is one of the joys of running an accountancy practice.