McKees, has partnered with accountancy firm Harbinson Mulholland and financial services practice, Kerr Henderson, to set up an SME Support Forum to provide free guidance and support to businesses impacted during the current challenging conditions.

Leading the SME Support Forum (l-r): John Kerr, Managing Director of Kerr Henderson with Chris Ross, Managing Partner of McKees, and Darren McDowell, Senior Partner of Harbinson Mulholland.

Please note that all articles, support and guidance can now be found on our new website –

You can submit your questions or comments to our SME Support Forum at using the Contact Us form.

DISCLAIMER: Please note that the guidance offered by the Support Forum does not constitute legal advice and is intended to provide general guidance and assistance only. We are unable to provide specific advice relating to individual cases through the Forum.

SME Support Forum Guidance Update Thursday 21st May

What if I am struggling to make pension contributions?

If you think you may not be able to make your pension contributions, contact your adviser and/or provider in the first instance to explore whether there is flexibility to change the due date for payment of employer contributions to a future date or, whether they may be able to help you plan to pay contributions over a longer period. You could also consider using the government support packages –, which are there to help with cashflow. #businessinterruption #smesector #smesupport #supportingoneanother #covid19 #northernireland #smefinance

SME Support Forum Guidance Update Tuesday 19th May

Closure of the Small Business Support Grant Scheme Members are reminded that if they think they are eligible for the Scheme (NAV of £15,000 or below) they have until the above time on Wednesday 20th May at 23:59 (tomorrow) to submit their details to the Department for the Economy.
The online portal for submission of details (and further information if required) can be found at


9 step “CERTAINTY” Plan to guide employers in helping their employees and businesses

COMMUNICATE: With your employees regularly about the steps your business is taking to address COVID-19 on their behalf.
Providing a summary or review of your current pandemic plan and changes to it in the light of government advice will prove to them that their organisation is supporting their health and wellbeing.

• ENGAGE: Stay in contact.
During this period of deep uncertainty, it is essential to stay connected through regular real-time virtual collaboration. Whether it is by tech, phone, or other means, this can help your colleagues feel personally connected, compared to text or email communication. Also, just pick up the phone and talk to them and encourage them to do the same with their colleagues, particularly when they have a problem.

• REVIEW: Prepare, and continually review, a work-from-home strategy.
Consult with employees about their working from home arrangements, as well as how work will be conducted differently to enable social distancing and self-isolation. Perhaps ask to see a photo of your employees’ home set-ups, to ensure that it meets health and safety requirements.

• TALK: Promote a positive, inclusive culture by setting up regular virtual staff coffee meetings, quizzes and team meetings.
Many workers will have never worked from home. As a result, you need to be proactive in organising social interactions with and among your staff to maintain positive relationships. As a manager, you might even continue to mark birthdays or other milestones via virtual coffee catch ups or after-work drinks. Be creative.

• ASSESS: Encourage a healthy work-life balance by setting time limits.
Work-life balance is an essential aspect of an employee’s ability to work safely and productively. You need to agree on working hours that employees know they are not expected to work beyond. Reminding employees to work in ways that are kind to their mind and body will also help to prevent burnout during this challenging time – which is also in your business’ interests.

• INSULATE: Educate staff of ways to stay mentally healthy while working from home.
Offer tutorials and tools on mindfulness, webinars on resilience, or merely suggesting employees go for a walk is especially beneficial to their health and wellbeing. In turn, being open and transparent in your interactions with employees also lets them know they are not alone.

• NEW THINKING: Recognise contribution and affirm your colleagues and staff.
Everyone is going the extra mile now. Reward the efforts that everyone is making by doing simple things like sending a box of chocolates, flowers or an Amazon Gift Card.

• TENACITY: Try to stay positive and innovative during this time.
Your colleagues are relying on you and looking to you for leadership, support and guidance. Perhaps use some of your time every day to reach out to your suppliers and other SMEs via LinkedIn, telephone and video link to proactively engage with them. This time could build new relationships.

• YOU: Take care of yourself, your co-directors and team.
Use this time for training and thinking. Find relevant webinars, books, articles and groups that can help you think about your business more clearly so you can re-engineer some of your processes and how your company works. Limit your news consumption to one per day. Maybe even try a Joe Wicks class online every morning?!


Self-Employment Income Support Scheme OPEN TODAY

From 8am this morning self-employed individuals or members of partnerships whose business has been adversely affected by coronavirus will be able to apply for a Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) grant worth 80% of their average monthly trading profits.

From today, people will be able to make their claim on a specified date between 13-18 May, based on their Unique Tax Reference number. HMRC has assigned eligible self-employed individuals a specific date to apply on and this can be checked on HMRC’s online checker. Check here: Government Self Employment Income Support Scheme Eligibility Checker

Everyone eligible for the SEISS, which is one of the most generous support schemes announced by any government in response to coronavirus, will be able to receive the government grant by 25 May, or within six days of a completed claim.


Pension contributions for furloughed workers: Do I have to continue paying pension contributions during the pandemic?

The answer is yes:
• The obligation for you and your members of staff to make contributions is set out in your pension scheme’s rules or other governing documentation.
• Your staff may choose to either reduce their contribution level (if the scheme rules allow this) or opt out or cease active membership of the scheme if they decide that is right for them at this time. However, you must not encourage or induce them to choose this option. If staff choose to reduce their contributions your scheme rules may allow you to reduce your employer contributions or retain them at the current rate.
• Any member of staff who reduces their contribution below the statutory minimum, or opts out, or ceases active membership, must be put back into the pension scheme at the next re-enrolment date if they meet certain criteria.
• Any member of staff who reduces their contribution below the statutory minimum, or opts out, or ceases active membership, can also choose to opt back in to pension saving before the re-enrolment date if they wish.
• Unless a member of your staff asks to opt out of their workplace pension or reduces their contributions, you and your staff members must continue to make the contributions required under the scheme at the correct time.
• Any staff contributions you deduct from their wages must be paid to the scheme and not used for any other purposes.


PENSIONS & AUTO ENROLMENT – what is the current position? (Click on highlighted links below for Pensions Regulator information)

  • AE duties continue to apply as normal, including re-enrolment and re-declaration duties.
  • AE duties apply to staff furloughed as part of the Corona virus Job Retention Scheme as well as those still working.
  • Postponement can be used to postpone the duty to assess new or newly eligible staff.
    • This effectively defers the need to make pension contributions for up to three months.
  • Many employers will be approaching the third anniversary of their duties start date or staging date and will have re-enrolment duties (a repeat of your staging duties which is in addition to your ongoing obligations) to deal with, perhaps for the first time.
    • TPR will write to employers with information on their re-enrolment duties.  
    • Employers can choose a re-enrolment date within a six-month time frame if they wish – this starts three months before, and ends three months after your anniversary date. 
      • This window could be used ease any pressures you are facing due to the corona virus pandemic.  



HMRC has now updated its guidance concerning the support for self-employed earners. For the recent update click on this Eligibility Calculator is that there is now a link where it can be checked if a claim if eligible. Points to note are:

  • To check, the self-employed earner will need their Unique Taxpayer Reference (a 10 digit number) and National Insurance Number.
  • There is then a facility to provide contact details for when the portal is available to make the claims, expected mid-May.
  • We would advise that all self-employed earners who believe they are entitled to this support now check whether this link indicates they are eligible.
  • If eligible, a Government Gateway account can be established, if not previously done so, and contact details provided. HMRC will then use those contact details to advise when a claim can be made.
  • Early indications from our client base is this will be from 13 May onwards, but different expected claim dates are being provided for different clients, albeit, they are only 1 – 2 days apart.
  • Online will be the quickest way of receiving this support but HMRC guidance does state that an alternative method of claiming will be available in due course for those who can’t claim online.

NB If the above link indicates you are ineligible for this support, but you believe this is incorrect then we would be happy to review and discuss your particular circumstances.”


Employee Annual Leave: Can employees be forced to take annual leave during COVID-19?

  • In short the answer is yes, the rules on annual leave haven’t changed.
  • Two days’ notice has to be given for every day which the employee is being asked to take. So if an employee is being asked to take 10 days as annual leave then 20 days’ notice has to be given.
  • At the moment this gives employees a certain level of protection as employers want to limit the immediate impact on their cash flow so it would make more sense to furlough employees and use the government lifeline, compared to a long annual leave notice period.
  • Business wise, forcing employees to take their annual leave is likely to create some friction and could lead to reputational damage as a business which is not willing to support its employees.
  • However, the furloughing process requires the agreement of the employer and the employee.
  • It may be that the employer is keen for annual leave to be used due to concerns about a large number of employees taking leave in the same period once the lock down has been lifted.
  • In this situation, employers should consider introducing restrictions on taking annual leave instead i.e. that leave will only be granted if there is sufficient staffing for key tasks.
  • The Business Secretary has further released guidance which allows for up to 4 weeks of annual leave which has not been used by employees during the pandemic to be carried over for up to 2 years.
  • This will ease the responsibility of employers who previously had to ensure employees had taken their entitled 28 days within the year.
  • This will also help employer’s plan for their “return to work” strategies, knowing that their workforce has longer to use their annual leave and thereby reduce the risk of being under-staffed at any one time. There is no longer the same rush for employee’s to use their annual leave.


Business Resumption Planning Duties of Directors & Furloughed Employees

Directors Duties

Directors owe duties to the company to act in good faith, to act in the best interests of the company and to exercise care, skill, and diligence in their conduct.

  • They also owe duties to their employees to maintain their health, safety and welfare at work.
  • Directors should consider their response to commercial risks such as unavailability of staff, supply chain restrictions, production delays and travel restrictions)

Business Resumption Planning – Furloughed Employees

  • In preparation for a return to some level of normal activity you may wish to bring some furloughed employees back into work.  Remember that employees can be furloughed multiple times, but each separate instance must be for a minimum period of 3 consecutive weeks.


COVID-19 Business Resumption Working Capital Planning

Having carried out the above base line analysis (i.e. continue to prepare weekly cash flows; assume a baseline of things continuing as they are now; work out if your existing cash resources will be enough to sustain the business for the coming months after accessing the government support initiatives of the job retention scheme, the grants for small businesses, delayed VAT and self assessment payments and CBILS lending) consider if you have sufficient working capital for some level of business reopening.
o Operationally once you start to bring staff off furlough do you have the working capital to pay them until your income starts to flow?
o If not you may need to go back to your bank for further support or consider other ways of bridging this gap. Slowing payments to suppliers should be an absolute last resort, we are in this together and need to work together to get through it.

COVID-19 Business Communication Planning
Communicate and engage with clients, customers, suppliers and your own teams regularly and in a consistent and effective manner – focus on positive messaging and ensure those working remotely and/or those who have been furloughed don’t become isolated or forgotten about.
o Review key contracts with customers and suppliers to ensure you understand your duties and obligations.
o Each contract will need to be carefully considered to ascertain the impact, if any, that COVID-19 may have. The current crisis may excuse or postpone the performance of contractual obligations.
o To aid cash management communication continues to be key – within your organisation, with your customers, suppliers and stakeholders.


COVID-19 Exit Strategy: Business Resumption Planning

We would emphasise the importance of preparing your business for exit now. Ensure you devise a plan/ strategy for resumption of “normal” business activities. This plan will likely include a number of assumptions and different scenarios depending on how the government exit strategy is rolled out of the coming days and weeks. What does seem likely is a phased return to the “new norm” for business resumption with social distancing measures being deployed for many months to come.
o What operational lessons have you learned about your business during lock down?
o What measures have you implemented and smarter ways of working have you developed during lock down?
o Ensure these new ways of working become the new norm and do not allow your business to fall back into old ways of working e.g. allow more agile and home working, reduced commuting time and business travel, more video meetings using MS Teams and Zoom, improved quality of family time and flexible working hours, etc.

Cash is still king
o Continue to prepare weekly cash flows.
o Assume a baseline of things continuing as they are now.
o Work out if your existing cash resources will be enough to sustain the business for the coming months after accessing the government support initiatives of the job retention scheme, the grants for small businesses, delayed VAT and self assessment payments and CBILS lending.


Insurance: What is the position on my Employers Liability Insurance?

The comments below are guidance and support to prompt you to think about the areas covered and points made. You should contact your insurer or Broker for advice before making any decisions about your own circumstances. There are other considerations that businesses might want to think about where they have employees working at home – for example, from an Employers’ Liability perspective, does the employee have a safe environment to work at home? Perhaps not a consideration during lock down, but in other times of home working, is your employee permitted under their household insurance to work from home on business (many policies specifically exclude this). From a Property Damage perspective, are you covered under your commercial insurance for property belonging to the company being taken away from the premises to employee’s homes all over the country for a protracted period? This is definitely worth checking, particularly if an employee was to leave a laptop, smart phone or similar device in their car whilst parked as this is often specifically excluded.


Insurance: What if my premises or office is unoccupied? Am I covered?

The comments below are guidance and support to prompt you to think about the areas covered and points made. You should contact your insurer or Broker for advice before making any decisions about your own circumstances. Every policyholder should, in my view, formally advise their insurer or Broker where they have either suspended trading and/or closed their premises. Most SME policies will contain a wording relating to unoccupancy where the policy cover may, after a period of time (often 30 days), be limited to certain perils only like Fire, Lightning, Explosion so it’s important that policyholders check this. Insurers have stepped up to the plate on this and have written out to policyholders and/or Brokers advising them that although their policy may contain restrictions in cover after a specified period, they will continue to provide full cover for an extended period, often up to 60 days or even 90 days at not additional charge. They do however expect policyholders to take all reasonable to steps to secure their premises in accordance with any policy conditions that applied before the unoccupancy e.g. to ensure that shutters are down where a premises has these, that exit doors are properly locked and that intruder alarms are set. Furthermore, many policies may include a requirement that during this period of unoccupancy they (the policyholder or their representatives) regularly visit the premises to ensure that all is in order and record this somewhere – we would suggest that a good strategy would be to take a few photos or a video of the premises each time they are visited as this will act as evidence of the time/date visited and insurers may want this as proof of regular inspection in the event of a claim. With further restrictions on lock down likely to come in the near future, this last requirement i.e. to regularly visit the premises to ensure that all is in order could be problematic, and policyholders should check with their insurer or Broker if this requirement can be waived should this happen. It would be a brave insurer that would insist on a policyholder to leave the relative safety of their own home to carry out an inspection of their business premises where this contravened Government instructions on lock down.


Insurance: What about my premises or office insurance?

The comments below are guidance and support to prompt you to think about the areas covered and points made. You should contact your insurer or Broker for advice before making any decisions about your own circumstances. The vast majority of standard SME insurance policies that provide cover for Business Interruption (Consequential Loss of Profits) will extend to include not only the obvious consequential losses from a Property Damage loss at the premises, but will often cover losses brought about by the temporary or enforced closure of a business as a result of an outbreak of a Specified Disease at the premises.

The key here is that the loss must be at the premises, though some policies may also include cover where the closure of the policyholder’s business may have resulted from an outbreak at another business premises within a specified radius of the policyholder or by the enforced closure by the authorities. Again, the key point here is that the outbreak is from a Specified Disease and in many policies, these are clearly listed and include such things as Malaria, Small Pox and Tuberculosis but alas not Covid-19, and therefore there is no policy cover for this. We have heard from many clients who say this is unfair, and that somehow insurers have deliberately sought to avoid claims even though the policy that they purchased was issued before Covid-19 was even known of so on that basis, it’s an unfair criticism. The reason why Covid-19 is not included in the list of Specified Diseases is because it has only recently been known of, and insurers have not therefore had the opportunity to consider the consequences of such an outbreak and the likely financial cost to them so that they could factor this into their policy rating. Most if not all of the Specified Diseases named in a typical SME policy are ones that have been known of for many years, where the numbers of outbreaks and people infected each year is relatively well known and where in most cases there is a vaccine for the disease limiting its spread and therefore the financial consequences to insurers providing cover for those diseases. In the case of Covid-19, the numbers of people likely to be infected is currently unknown but as at 08/04/2020 1,446,775 people globally have been recorded as having contracted Covid-19, and as there is currently no vaccine for this disease, the human and financial outcome is going to be significant. Insurance is fundamentally underwritten using a host of historical data to assess risk. Even if insurers had been aware of Covid-19, which we know they were not, it is highly unlikely that they would have offered carte-blanche cover as the financial consequences to them would have been catastrophic and few insurers would have survived having to pay consequential loss of profits claims for virtually every commercial insurance policyholder. There are many insurers out there and each company will have slight differences in the way that their policy wording reads, but the general consensus in the industry is that if you have a standard SME type commercial insurance policy, then you are highly unlikely to be covered for the consequential loss of profits arising from this outbreak of Covid-19. A very small number of SME policies may cover it but only because the insurer had inadvertently included a policy wording that is vague and can be challenged, but for those that include cover on a Specified Diseases basis then the answer is clear we regret to say. In summary to repeat the point, if anyone is in any doubt about their policy cover then they should challenge their insurer or Broker about this.


Pensions: Can an employer put some or all of their scheme membership on a contribution holiday?

No. Minimum contributions required under automatic enrolment have not been suspended, so employers should continue to pay their own and forward their employees’ contributions to their scheme provider in the normal way. The Pensions Act 2008 includes safeguarding rules to protect employees from being taken out of a qualifying pension scheme unless they make that decision for themselves. If an employer takes any action that results in active membership of a qualifying scheme ceasing for a jobholder, the employer has a duty to immediately re-enrol the jobholder back into a qualifying scheme from the day after active membership ceases. A contribution holiday is only permitted when an employer is facilitating a request directly from an employee themselves. Inducing an employee to opt out or cease membership is prohibited.


Finance: Corona-virus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) access broadened

From Monday 6 April the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) has been opened up to all viable small businesses, i.e. not just to those who could not secure regular commercial lending.  In addition under the scheme personal guarantees will not be taken for facilities below £250,000.   On a practical level the British Business Bank operates CBILS via accredited lenders, this means your first port of call should be to access the funding through your existing bank. 


Pension & Finance: Pension contributions for furloughed workers

The maximum grant will be calculated per employee and is the lower of 80% of an employee’s regular wage and £2,500 per month plus the associated employer NI contributions on this amount and the minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions (3% of Qualifying Earnings) on that wage. This gives a maximum cap of £2,500 + £245 (employers’ NIC) + £59 (auto- enrolled pension contribution) = £2,804 of total possible grant that can be applied for per employee per month. If there is no immediate change to contracts of employment when employees are furloughed you may be obliged to continue paying pension contributions in line with your scheme documentation or the agreements between you and your employees (albeit based on the reduced amount of pensionable earnings). It is anticipated that workers will be expected to pay their own minimum contributions from ongoing pay or potentially lose their employer contribution. If you normally calculate contributions using a different definition of pensionable pay (basic pay is very common) and want to change contributions to match only what you can claim from the government you will need to discuss/agree this with staff.  You may need to seek legal advice on the process and inform The Pensions Regulator. You should also notify your advisers, pension provider(s) and whoever manages your payroll as soon as possible to ensure the change can be administered and systems updated accommodate this. *Remember; someone must still take responsibility for uploading contribution schedules to the pension provider (on time) to ensure monies are collected and invested.  Failure to do so can result in fines and penalties

SME Support Forum Guidance Update: Friday 3rd April


Have auto-enrolment duties/contributions been suspended? No. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has confirmed that employer duties and (including the payment of pension contributions required under automatic enrolment) will not be suspended during the corona virus crisis, although it plans to keep the situation under review as the crisis develops. This means that employers should continue to pay their own and forward their employees’ contributions to their scheme provider in the normal way. There are special provisions for furloughed employees (that is, those whose employment has been temporarily put on hold).

McKees, has partnered with accountancy firm Harbinson Mulholland and financial services practice, Kerr Henderson, to set up an SME Support Forum to provide free guidance and support with practical information to help guide businesses at a general level pointing you in the right general direction to businesses impacted during the current challenging conditions.  

The one thing we are striving to do is be a signal above the noise and provide practical, general guidance to help you and your SME business. The SME Support Forum is intended to be a support to SME’s during this business critical period. As such this is to be viewed as assistance in helping you navigate the support channels that are available quickly and providing you with the correct information.

SME SUPPORT FORUM WEBINAR 1 – Wednesday 25th March 2020

The webinar below provides guidance and support to SME’s in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks. The HMRC link referred to by Darren McDowell, Harbinson Mulholland can be viewed by clicking here

Please let us know using Email your name, your company name and specific guidance and issue/question.

Please see below for more details on how the SME Support Forum can help you.

McKees, has partnered with accountancy firm Harbinson Mulholland and financial services practice, Kerr Henderson, to set up an SME Support Forum to provide free guidance and support to businesses impacted during the current challenging conditions.

Chris Ross, Managing Partner of McKees said: “It’s an unprecedented time for every business across Northern Ireland and many are facing a lot of challenges, turbulence and fear. Our generation hasn’t experienced a crisis like it before and Covid-19 is taking a massive toll on the local economy. Businesses are having to contend with so many issues at once and a lot of the people I have spoken to over the last number of weeks just don’t have the resources in place to deal with this ever-evolving situation.

We are seeing businesses closing across the province, thousands of people are losing their jobs, employers are accommodating sick and worried employees, insurance policies are not being covered and there is massive disruption to supply chains. And some businesses just don’t know where to turn to for help. We have partnered with Harbinson Mulholland and Kerr Henderson to set up the SME Support Forum which is specifically for people in Northern Ireland who own an SME business and are currently worried about their livelihood and that of the people who work for them. We are here to help get people the practical information they need at this terrible time.”

“Not all SME’s will have the legal, financial and insurance support they need and that will only add to the stress and worry. If you are scared, confused or anxious and don’t know where to start or what you need to do, the SME Support Forum is here to provide logical steps and practical information. We are encouraging SME’s to get in touch with the questions and issues they need help and support with at this time and we will do our very best to guide them in the right direction,” Chris concluded.