Will UK payroll services buckle as quarantining and self-isolation accelerate?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy March 18, 2020
It's not just cashflow it's about payroll operations

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I received an email from my accounting advisory firm about the potential impact of COVID-19 on their ability to provide payroll services. They said:

We have a plan of action should our payroll department go into a lockdown situation because of coronavirus.

All our payroll team have the ability to work remotely in isolation from home, and all are familiar with most if not all of the payrolls that we run for clients.

If the worst happens and we find that our internal resource is compromised because of the virus, we may need to prioritise certain payrolls into a processing order. This may result in some payrolls not being processed. The ones given low priority or not processed at all would be those where the business can easily just pay the payroll and PAYE figures as per last month (or last week), as opposed to those requiring detailed calculations on fluctuating pay levels and with higher staff turnover.

Please note that, although not yet formally confirmed, we expect HMRC to be lenient in these circumstances and give clients time to bring the payrolls up to date and ensure the correct PAYE payments are ultimately made without penalty etc.

This got me thinking.

First up, it's good to see professional firms that handle the complexities of this vitally important service making clear their position. Second, it is highly unusual for professional accountants to anticipate government action of this kind. It is dangerously close to offering advice upon which they could be sued for professional negligence. Knowing my firm as I do, they will not have made these statements without a considerable amount of forethought or consultation among their global network peers.

Therefore, it is safe to assume that there will be relief in cases where firms can't cope for whatever reason. This could for example be as mundane a matter as networks used by payroll staff falling down. We already know that the main ISPs are under pressure and it is only set to get worse as more firms are forced to send staff home or implement WFH policies. 

But then I looked more broadly and discovered that beyond providing standard advice based on statutary intreptation of regulation, none of the better known payroll providers are offering any tangible help to their users. Sage? Nada other than this. ADP? Radio silence.  PayrollService UK? Same story. PayPlus? Ummm... Do you see a pattern here?

My take

Payroll is one of those areas that just has to work. Small businesses in the UK are faced with a mountain of complex legislation, parts of which on topics like SSP or flexible working hours will likely kick in very quickly. Ensuring that people are paid correctly is important any day of the week but now, it takes on special import. 

While we recognize that responses to the COVID-19 crisis are fluid at best with decisions taken on a day by day basis we would have thought that the providers could be more proactive. We are, apparently, mistaken. So kudos to my firm of accountants for the service they offer and the advice they give. It's why we pay them.

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