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Open for business

I thought I was a moderately intelligent accountant, but have completely lost the plot when it comes to the rules about reopening the office.

1st Jun 2020
Partner An unnamed firm
Columnist
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Confused about return to normality rules after coronavirus lockdown
iStock_Supermarket queue_Alessandro Mariscalco

During those heady days when we had to stay at home to save lives, I got it. Except that I didn’t.

This was a time when England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had the same legislation. Please forgive me if you live elsewhere, but much of the rest of this article is based on the position in England.

On the other hand, the average Scottish man or woman may feel a great deal better after learning about the chaotic situation south of the border.

While I fervently believe that an accountant is an essential worker, it appears that this view may not have been shared widely by the community at large.

Okay, so then we use the next measure, which was that you could go to the office if it was impossible to work at home. How do you define impossible? Does a nagging wife, screaming kids and the temptation to tuck into the Jaffa cakes to the detriment of my health qualify as impossible?

How about if I confess that entirely by coincidence, since she was visiting from out of town at the time, my household also included the mother-in-law, who is sleeping in what would otherwise be my office?

Those factors were enough to leave the position unclear. However, the latest pronouncements from the Prime Minister have muddied the waters far more effectively.

Please accept my apologies if I have got any of this wrong but the combination of rumours, leaks, contradictory announcements from ministers of state, guidance and recommendations mean that operating within the legislation in this area is almost as impenetrable as our lovely, voluminous tax statutes, with almost as many loopholes.

The Cummings Principle

From the start, it has been clear that there is an exemption for anybody working on a building site, but this now seems to be extending.

Here goes. I can walk around in the streets as long as I don’t get within 2m of anybody else. This is becoming increasingly difficult as the country at large appears to be following what will soon be enshrined in law as “The Cummings Principle” - ie you can completely ignore the law because you know you are above it.

From this week, a maximum of six people from different households can meet up outdoors provided that none of them comes within 2 m of any other.

If I go into the local supermarket, the majority of customers and all staff have given up any semblance of social distancing, although some kids might still plant their feet on the signs by the checkouts believing that it is a great new game.

In schools up and down the country, although not that many of them, groups of 17 or 18 including teachers are allowed to meet indoors without any expectation that they will religiously observe social distancing. In factories, this might multiply up into hundreds or thousands.

The government has accepted from an early stage that if they want the economy to sputter along, they will turn a blind eye to the fact that in many cases it is impossible to maintain a safe social distance and operate even vaguely effectively.

Does anyone remember masks? At some point, it was suggested that everyone on public transport and meeting indoors should wear masks. I don’t know what happened to that idea.

It might have helped if, when the government was developing its Isle of Wight app, which seems to have got stuck on the island, they had added an extra alarm that tells you when you are within 2m of anybody else.

Commuting risks

Then there is the transport. Even if you can make an office “safe” according to the guidelines, if it is in a major city, staff will have to travel on very limited public transport, either risking their health or coming in at strange times.

So, having read all of that, can I open the office legally?

Even if the answer to that question is “yes”, should I take the chance and how bad would I feel if that led to an outbreak of coronavirus and someone (inevitably the workaholic partner whose cancer treatment has been put on hold) died as a direct consequence?

It would be nice to get some clarity, but then it would be nice for coronavirus to go away. Regrettably, neither of these seems a likely outcome in the foreseeable future.

Replies (1)

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Hallerud at Easter
By DJKL
03rd Jun 2020 11:01

I have an innovative business idea, we take a bunch of car reversing sensors and fit them onto a hat, you then get an audible warning when anyone or anything comes within whatever distance the system is set to use, 2 metres, 3 metres whatever.

You are totally spot on re evaluating safety, we believe we can deal with our office environment, we have already sorted most things for the office/sorted cleaning regimes etc, but staff getting to/from work safely, that is still the problem area we have concerns about.

Barring the virus deciding to run away I really cannot see us even considering opening the office until the schools in Scotland return in August at the earliest, I am also not sure I will risk my other half this month returning to the school where she works (as is I understand currently being discussed) to prepare for the next academic year.

It will be a really brave (or foolish) person who will currently put their own neck on the block by signing off a risk assessment that it is safe for all staff to return to a work environment and insisting that they now return.

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