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Coping with COVID cross-border confusion

17 November 2020: For businesses located near internal UK borders, having both staff and clients in different countries and at the mercy of different rules adds another layer of complexity. ICAEW Insights finds out how two accountants are navigating this complex landscape.

When even government Ministers come unstuck trying to explain the latest lockdown rules, the question begs, what hope is there for the rest of us? 

As the latest lockdown across England continues, navigating lockdown rules has become a national pastime as accountants try to get their heads around the complex landscape of support measures and restrictions while ensuring that the health and safety obligations of staff continue to be met.

For businesses and accountancy firms located near internal UK borders to Wales and Scotland, having both staff and clients in different countries and at the mercy of different rules adds another layer of complexity, at a time when widespread confusion continues to reign. Nearly half of people living in England say they do not understand the current coronavirus lockdown rules, according to the COVID-19 Social Study published by University College London, and just 13% say they fully understand them. 

As Wales emerged from its 17-day firebreak on 9 November, a new set of national measures have come into force. All retail businesses have been allowed to reopen, including close-contact services such as hairdressers/barbers and beauty salons. Entertainment venues and sport and leisure facilities including gyms and swimming pools can also reopen, albeit with operators taking reasonable measures to manage risk and maintain physical distancing. 

People are being urged to work from home where possible and the rules state that people should avoid non-essential travel as much as possible. While there are no legal restrictions on travel within Wales for residents, people can only travel into and out of Wales with a “reasonable excuse”. Fortunately, that’s ambiguous enough for accountants to continue to visit Welsh clients where needed. 

Sue Harris, Audit Partner in the Chester office of accountancy firm Champion Group, admits the lack of consistency across borders has been a thorn in its side. In particular, having clients split between Wales and England has added a significant administrative burden, Harris says. Around half of the practice’s 17 staff in Chester live in Wales and one lives in Merseyside, which meant when Wales was in firebreak and Merseyside was under local lockdown restrictions, the practice was having to deal with three different sets of rules.

Before the first lockdown in March, all staff were set up to work from home. Since September, the practice decided that staff could return to the office, which has been signed off as COVID-secure by the Health and Safety Executive. 

“Remote working is still possible, but it is much more efficient for people to work in the office as we’re working with clients across audit, tax and accounting teams,” Harris explains. “Those who can, or who prefer to, will continue to work from home but with remote working, it’s easy for things to fall between stools and without a return to the office of at least some of our staff there would be too big an impact on our business.”

Being so close to the border means it’s easy to forget exactly which rules apply, Harris says. “The journey to a client can mean that you dip in and out of Wales. At what point am I breaking the rules? That has definitely caused some confusion,” Harris adds. Meanwhile, differences in the availability of financial support to businesses in Wales and England has proved a bone of contention, while for the practice, being forced to understand two sets of support scheme rules (depending on which country you’re in) adds a layer of complexity.

Martin Ward is a corporate finance specialist and senior audit partner at Dodd & Co, based in Cumbria, just 10 miles from the Scottish border. Around 20% of the practice’s clients are in Scotland, and several staff live over the border. “As we moved out of lockdown, it was very difficult to know which rules we were meant to be following,” Ward says. 

And the rules got a whole lot more complicated after Scotland introduced a tiered Coronavirus protection system with different regions of the country forced to abide by varying levels of restrictions. Full details are available here

Ward agrees that navigating the complexity of different grant eligibility rules depending on which country you’re in has been tricky. “Trying to keep abreast of what was going on in England was hard enough and making sure we remember which side of the border our clients are on. It’s getting clearer but every time there’s a change it causes problems,” Ward says. “Fortunately, we have good contact with lawyers on both sides of the border,” he adds.

One positive for Dodd & Co is that lockdown rules have increased efficiency by reducing the number of face-to-face client meetings, even if that does mean that Ward spends a significant chunk of his day doing video conferencing calls.

Both Ward and Harris agree that a return to “normality” remains some way off and there’s a begrudging acceptance that living with a potentially complex patchwork of rules across internal borders is something we will have to deal with for the foreseeable future. If one thing is certain, it’s that further changes to the rules are inevitable. “In that respect, it would be really useful to have as much notice as possible,” Harris says.