How will vaccine passports impact the accountancy profession?
Following the government's recent announcement, Philip Fisher considers how vaccine passports and other tests might impact our profession.
Inevitably, given our Prime Minister’s affinity with U-turns, there is a great deal of uncertainty about exactly when or whether England will implement vaccine passports.
What does seem to be clear is that if the plan goes ahead, what has swiftly become a red rag of a name will have to be changed.
Amazingly, opposition to this policy has managed to unite the far right, represented so vocally by the Covid Denial Group, with Jeremy Corbyn and his pals on the far left. Each is concerned that such a proposal could be divisive and discriminatory.
Many of us in between those two poles will also have justifiable concerns about the efficacy and desirability of such a plan, especially if it is used widely.
The ultimate decision could have significant consequences for our businesses in a number of ways.
The first question that those running accountancy practices will need to answer is whether or not to implement vaccine passports and equivalents in their own offices.
Initially, such a plan might seem desirable, since it should reduce the possibility of the virus affecting the workforce and, by extension, profitability.
The arguments will be similar to those for making vaccinations a contractual requirement for new employees. As readers might recall, this did not go down well when mooted a few months ago.
If nothing else, such a proposition could easily mean banning all junior employees from attending the office until late in the year, especially given recent warnings about a significant slowdown in the vaccine programme.
Going a step further, would any of us be willing to inform existing and prospective clients that they were not welcome to bring us their business unless they arrived on the doorstep with a coronavirus exemption of some kind?
Thinking back to some of the fiery clients who have been instrumental in boosting fee income over the years, I would not want to be the receptionist sitting at passport control while such clients were railing against what they regarded as an unacceptably intrusive practice.
This question is actually deeper than it sounds, since at the other end of the scale some clients might actually be attracted by the prospect of a service provider who takes these precautionary measures.
False sense of security
As the scientists are happy to point out on an increasingly regular basis, we are still in the land of the unknown.
The extent to which vaccines stop people catching the virus remains unclear, while there will be different rates for different patients. Although that data is uncertain, there is even less knowledge about their ability to prevent transmission. Then we get to the knotty question of new variants.
Given all of this information, setting up a passport control in the office might still be of benefit but the advantages could be much more limited than we are being led to believe at the moment.
Lateral flow testing
The alternative might be to demand sight of one or more negative lateral flow test results. In principle, this sounds wonderful but in practice could easily lead to disaster.
That is because these tests often come up with false negative and false positive results.
In the former case, you would unwittingly be allowing virus-carrying colleagues and clients into the office.
In the latter, a significant proportion of staff might be obliged to self-isolate after a positive test result or association with someone who got one. Even worse, you may face that tricky phone call to a client to inform that they must do so.
Some might regard that as rare but, on the basis of two tests a week, if the rate of false positives is 1% then an office with 50 employees will have one person testing positive each week on average, ignoring those that are actually ill. Even if the rate was 1/10 of that, some staff would be forced to self-isolate every couple of months.
The other possible consequence is an obligation to supplement the lateral flow test with a much more accurate PCR version. Someone would then have to pay a three-figure sum (£120 at Britain’s leading chemist for 48-hour turnaround) for this and, if you make the employees take lateral flow tests, you will almost certainly feel obliged to foot the bill. To add to the cost, the relevant employees would have to lock themselves away until the result came through.
A better solution
At the moment, the government is still recommending that businesses in the service sector allow staff to work from home. In the longer term, if the virus continues to be a threat, that would seem to be a sensible way forward.
PWC are leading the way at the moment with their proposition to staff that, once it is safe to return to the office, they should still only consider working there for two or three days every week, spending the rest of the time applying the ubiquitous WFH acronym.
Who knows where the country and the world will be heading in three months’ time let alone a year? However, for the moment, our renowned prudence exemplified by PWC’s approach is undoubtedly the wisest policy.