Some 1.9 million people who rely on cash everyday have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The need for vulnerable people to stay at home, and concerns over cash hygiene, have left people struggling to pay for essentials.
In the week the UK went into lockdown, ATM use fell by 50%, according to ATM network Link.
In March, we surveyed 2,003 people, of which 15% said that they had experienced local shops and businesses not accepting cash as payment.
Here, Which? explores why access to cash still matters and what you can do if you’re reliant on it day to day.
- Keep up to date on the latest coronavirus news and advice with Which?
Is cash hygienic?
Early media reports suggested the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against using cash – a claim that WHO later denied.
According to the Bank of England: ‘Like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, banknotes can carry bacteria or viruses.’
So whether handling cash, debit and credit cards, phones, shopping baskets or payment terminals, wash your hands when you get home.
If you can, pay using a bank card. From the start of April the contactless payment limit has been raised from £30 to £45 to reduce the need to touch payment terminals.
- Find out more: the Which? health experts on how to keep your hands clean.
Why cash use still matters
Our research shows that many people are still reliant on cash, whether that’s because they can’t use mobile or internet banking, live in remote areas where their broadband connection is unreliable or local retailers only accept cash.
Nearly half of those who rely or depend on cash are aged over 65, while nearly a third are aged 55 to 64. Both groups are more likely to need to self-isolate and ask friends, family or volunteers to shop for them.
Two thirds of those who depend on cash have no digital skills, while just over half have basic digital skills.
Just over a third are likely to be a vulnerable customer, with 42% of these customers having a physical or mental condition and 43% having experienced a life shock.
It may be impractical for these people to apply and learn to use a debit card for online shopping in the midst of the pandemic.
- Find out more: how can vulnerable households get food deliveries?
Post Office cash delivery
The Post Office has repurposed its foreign currency service to deliver cash to the homes of vulnerable customers, with the help of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
At the moment, this is just for vulnerable people in England who are shielding at home and receive benefits such as pensions.
The Post Office offers two other options to help you pay volunteers who are shopping on your behalf.
The Payout Now service, currently only for HSBC customers, sends a voucher by text, email or post to a customer who can share it with a trusted person to withdraw cash.
Fast Pace service, currently only for Santander customers, allows a customer to arrange for a trusted person (such as a carer or family member) to collect a pre-authorised cheque and cash it in at a Post Office branch.
If you think either service could be useful to you, it’s worth contacting your bank or building society to see what alternatives it offers.
If you’re self isolating, call your council about local ‘Mutual Aid’ groups. You can also find these on Facebook and the Nextdoor app. Volunteers from these groups can shop for you at retailers even if you can only pay in cash.
Many supermarket and other retailers have introduced pre-paid cards for volunteers that you can top up online, essentially repurposing their existing gift card schemes.
Starling Bank has also introduced a ‘connected card’, which you can give to a trusted volunteer. You can limit how much money this volunteer has access to.
- Find out more: how to shop safely at the supermarket
Being able to withdraw cash only helps if you’ve got money in your bank account. But the pandemic has made it difficult to manage accounts or deposit cash.
With many bank staff being sick or self-isolating, lots of branches have been temporarily closed or had their hours reduced. Lloyds, NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland Mobile branches have also been closed.
You can find out how your bank has amended its online, telephone and in-branch bank options:
Some bank customers who have contacted us via our Which? Money Facebook page and our Which? Team Cash Facebook page have also expressed concerns about running out of money due to not being able to pay cheques into their local branch.
The good news is that many banks and building societies have introduced the ability for you to pay a cheque in by taking a photo of it and uploading it to your mobile bank app. The Cheque & Credit Clearing Company has some guidance on how this works.
Many banks have relaxed their policies on allowing a third-party trusted volunteer to do your banking on your behalf.
Our long battle for access to cash
Prior to the lockdown, Chancellor Rishi Sunak had committed in the Budget to protect access to cash.
In April, Barclays, NatWest, Sainsbury’s Bank and PayPoint agreed to replace free-to-use ATMs lost over the next 12 months if the local community faces losing free access to cash.
Which? is therefore calling on the government and retailers to find a way for people who rely on cash, some of whom don’t have a bank card, to pay for essentials.
Anabel Hoult, Which? chief executive, said: ‘We are pleased that the chancellor has taken decisive action to ensure that millions of people who have been hit hard by bank branch and ATM closures will continue to have access to cash.
‘We know that the cash system faces irreversible damage within the next two years, so the government must swiftly press ahead with its plans to legislate, which must include putting a single regulator in charge of protecting cash.’
- Find out more: the Which? ‘Freedom to Pay’ campaign