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How to prevent the coronavirus threat to your practice

The Imprudent Accountant considers the dangers presented by coronavirus and attempts to provide some practical advice to help your practice.

10th Mar 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
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Wearing a medical face mask for coronavirus viruses
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Richard Murphy has beaten me to the draw but since this impending plague seems to be here for the duration and will undoubtedly create many problems for accountants as well as everyone else in the population, it seemed worth taking a second look. In any event, our thoughts do not overlap significantly.

I should emphasise that I am an accountant, not a health expert but regrettably the coronavirus outbreak has become an issue that will impact all of our lives, at least in the short term.

To date, there seem to have been two extremes of reaction. Some people are carrying on as normal, perhaps realistically taking the view that coronavirus currently seems no more potent than the annual round of influenza.

However, I’m already seeing individuals cancelling meetings and social gatherings, wearing face masks and, at a distance, washing their hands until they are raw. Apparently, people are also panic buying hand gel, baked beans and toilet rolls, which seems an extreme reaction based on the facts to date.

At the moment, government guidance is relatively limited, suggesting little more than frequent hand washing using hot water and soap for 20 seconds at a stretch.

While this strategy will do no harm, as a solution to a serious problem I can’t help feeling that this is akin to King Canute trying to turn back an ocean.

Clearly, an office environment is likely to present higher risks than sitting at home. Moreover, those who commute to work will face greater dangers.

If you run your own practice, you should already be devising an appropriate strategy to protect yourself, your clients and your staff members.

As a start, it might be an idea to ban handshaking and other forms of physical contact. Hand washing, the provision of sanitisers (although apparently these are less effective than the 20-second routine) and avoiding/sending home anyone who is coughing and sneezing would also be wise precautions.

Going a step further, you might need to consider making arrangements to facilitate remote working where this is realistic. It may make no difference but then again…

It is also possible that following the Chinese and Italian examples, your home town or city could become a total quarantine zone, at which point the choice would be taken away from you.

On a smaller scale, have you considered what would happen if one or more staff members decided to self-isolate?

Meetings with clients are another potential problem. While I am a great fan of face-to-face contact, it might be advisable to utilise Skype, the telephone or email rather than personal contact at the moment. After all, the last thing that any of us needs is for a highly valued client to catch this pernicious virus and then point the finger in the direction of his or her accountant.

Every firm needs to try and find the appropriate balance between caution and panic.

If you are a sole practitioner or run a practice with no more than half a dozen staff, there may be no need to make any changes, beyond taking the kind of minor precautionary measures referred to above.

Should you be part of a multinational business, with staff who regularly travel to countries that could find themselves on the government’s danger list, not to mention office premises accommodating thousands of people, it might be worth taking regular advice from professionals while implementing a flexible formal strategy that is compulsory for every employee.

I’m reluctant to raise the issue but it is almost inevitable that some accountants will catch coronavirus. If that happens, in the best case scenario you are likely to be short-staffed, while if the worst comes to worst, you may be obliged to close your offices for an indefinite period. I don’t know how anyone can devise a strategy to countermand that outcome.

As a side issue, almost every cloud can have a silver lining and there may be opportunities to provide much-needed help to clients who are suffering commercially. This could result from fear on the high streets, the inability to deal with suppliers or clients overseas, the stock market collapse or any other by-products of coronavirus.

Replies (5)

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By johnjenkins
10th Mar 2020 12:50

Call me a conspiracy theorist but, to me, there is much more to this virus than meets the eye apart from "white van man" having a notice on his van saying that no toilet rolls are kept in this van overnight.
Governments are beginning to panic, why? Ordinary flue kills more people every year than this virus, so what's so special. Is it possible that it is "man made" rather than naturally formed? Have Governments been informed of something and not let us know (because we might panic if we new the truth)? Ho hum, got to wait 30 years for the real truth to come out.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Locutus of Borg
By Locutus
10th Mar 2020 16:06

I think the problem is that if it spreads very rapidly (which it seems to be doing) then it will overwhelm the capability of any country's health service to deal with those infected.

Statistically, around 10%-20% of those infected will need hospital care and around 1%-3% will die (both heavily skewed to the 70+ age bracket).

The measures taken by various countries are to try to flatten the spike in infections and allow health services more time to treat those affected.

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Replying to Locutus:
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By johnjenkins
11th Mar 2020 08:56

Well if our health minister gets it then we all in trouble. So the whole Government can self isolate in the House of Commons. Might get some decisions made then.

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Lone Wolf
By Lone_Wolf
10th Mar 2020 14:07

"If the worst comes to worst, you may be obliged to close your offices for an indefinite period."

I know we're all committed professionals, but surely DEATH would be considered worse than having to close the office, no?

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By Casterbridge Hardy LLP
10th Mar 2020 17:22

Surely the best defence is to develop the ability to deliver ray gun bursts of extreme halitosis and abandon any form of personal hygene (with the exception of manic, government advised hand washing on an olympic scale). This will actively discourage close personal contact 24/7.

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