For financial services firms now compelled to conduct most or all of
their business virtually due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the
Virgin Islands is an ideal place to do it, according to Robert Briant, partner and head of the corporate division at Conyers.
“The BVI is fortunate compared to other jurisdictions. I want to be very cautious in saying we are better than other places, but in the BVI the [Virtual Integrated Registry and Regulatory General Information Network] system is all online,” he said. “We can incorporate
[businesses]; we can file, unlike other jurisdictions with protocols for paper filings and things of that nature.”
At public and private offices across the territory, he explained, “social distancing” has become the new normal in order to prevent possible spread of the virus.
At Conyers, for instance, employees have been split up into two teams, which alternate days in the office.
“Anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the office is in at any given time,” he said, explaining that employees stay at least six feet apart when they do report to the office.
In addition, various types of disinfectant are stationed at every entrance.
Mr. Briant also explained that before the VI’s borders closed this week, “anyone who’s travelled or has family members with them and has returned in the past two weeks, … [was] required to self-isolate for 14 days.”
The Financial Services Commission issued a circular on March 17 reminding firms of “their statutory obligation to have strong business continuity plans in place and, if necessary, in effect,” urging them to review and revise plans as the pandemic evolves.
Government officials have offered firm guidance so far, according to Mr. Briant.
“The government has done a very good job for the jurisdiction,” he said. “They’ve been timely; they’ve been ahead of the curve so far, and of all the places to be in this most extraordinary situation it’s a good place to be.”
So far, although working from home does present some limitations, staff is making it work, he said.
“We have good internet, printers can be taken home if you wish, everyone has a cell phone: all of the basics to work from home,” Mr. Briant said. “I don’t want to say it’s business as usual — it’s an extraordinary time — but in terms of the pure mechanical process of working from home it is business as usual.”
Given worldwide disruptions, Mr. Briant speculated last month that work in the financial sector already could be slowing down.
When Hong Kong offices first went into lockdown, some VI firms noted a slowdown of work. As the outbreak slowed in Hong Kong, offices there began slowly resuming business as usual, but many have gone back to remote work as the COVID-19 situation there fluctuates, Mr. Briant explained.
“They expect multiple swings [back and forth] in China,” he said, adding that, at least since the virus has affected jurisdictions worldwide, no single area is at a disadvantage.
Whether business will continue to slow will likely depend on clients, he said, explaining that some hedge funds are “doubling down” as they spot new opportunities while other firms are waiting on the sidelines.
“The economy is in absolute turmoil and so clearly I don’t know [what the future holds],” he said. “The immediate repercussions are less than anticipated when we spoke [last month]. I’m concerned whether … people will continue to engage in transactions given what’s going on in the world. There’s so much volatility.”
Meanwhile, as of last week, the FSC itself has gone to working mornings in the office and afternoons remotely.
The commission is “continuing to operate its business continuity programme” in response to the pandemic, it announced in a statement on Monday. “We are implementing remote work measures that would allow us to continue to meet our regulatory obligations to the financial services industry while prioritising the health and wellbeing of our employees.”
Employees will respond to enquiries remotely, the agency explained, though in-person meetings are suspended.
As health authorities increasingly urge offices across the territory to put work-from-home policies in place, BVI Finance hosted a breakfast forum last week with representatives Ryan Geluk, Ehab Tarabay and Stevez Gomes of the Information Systems Security Association.
They urged firms, if they haven’t already, to set up firewalls and virtual private network tunnels to help employees access their office networks securely, as well as encouraging companies to implement and follow business continuity plans.
“Having domain policies, outlining how employees use the corporate network, is also an important part of training for employees,” the BVI Finance newsletter explained in a summary of their presentation.
At the same event, representatives from CCT, Digicel and Flow all confirmed that they are offering special plans during the crisis and have suspended the usual long-term-contract requirements for these plans. This step is designed to facilitate remote access during the COVID-19 crisis, they said.
According to BVI Finance, the telecom representatives pledged to “do all they could to boost their systems to lessen congestion on the networks, but encourage people to use the systems responsibly and only when necessary.”
On Friday, BVI Finance CEO Elise Donovan said she and her staff had begun working remotely as well.
“We are away from the office today but BVI Finance wishes you a safe and healthy time,” she said in a video posted to social media.
At the same time, the BVI Commercial Court has moved to a system of virtual hearings.
On Monday, a statement from Conyers partner and Head of
Litigation Mark Forte and three other litigation partners said they had conducted their first virtual hearing that day.
“All filings have now moved to an e-filing system to lessen the risk of any spread of COVID-19 whilst maintaining efficient operations,” the statement explained.
Last Thursday, the International Tax Authority announced that it “expects to maintain its operational frameworks and meet its international obligations.”
Notably, it did not propose to make any changes to its reporting
deadlines, including for the new Economic Substance Act, for which VI entities face deadlines this year.
However, the ITA is “monitoring the international landscape carefully and will consider any appropriate adjustments in the event that applicable international deadlines are modified.”
All Notices to Produce Information will be issued electronically, the ITA stated, and electronic responses are encouraged where possible.
Entities are “urged to continue to make every effort to comply with all requirements, including filing deadlines.”