Since the start of the coronavirus lockdown banks have been changing their operations to help people with their everyday banking needs. Although lockdown rules have now been relaxed for most parts of the UK, the pandemic continues to throw a spotlight on the challenges of managing finances and accessing cash in this new normal.
COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to a digital economy, by fundamentally changing the way people do their banking, shop and make payments. While some had already embraced digital options prior to the pandemic, not everyone has been able to jump into the digital world at the drop of a hat.
Banks acted quickly in lockdown to introduce a raft of measures including cash delivery services, additional training and telephone support to help customers, particularly those who are vulnerable or elderly and may not have access or be able to use digital banking options. But how much of this will remain in place?
Here, Which? explains what banks are doing to continue to help people to access their cash, how to let your bank know if you want someone else to manage your financial affairs and the additional support available if you are struggling. Plus, find out how you can try online banking for the first time and take part in our interactive polls. You can navigate your way through this article using the links below.
- Which bank branches are open?
- What COVID-19 safety measures have banks put in place?
- How accessing and spending cash has changed during the pandemic
- Cash delivery services and companion cards
- Telephone banking and accessing support remotely
- Additional support: accessibility features and online banking training
- How to get someone to do your banking for you
- Will new coronavirus initiatives be permanent?
- Have banks and regulators done enough?
Which bank branches are open?
Most bank branches should now be open to customers, although opening times may still be different to usual.
The table below outlines what banks and building societies told us about their new opening hours. You can use the search bar to find your bank.
What COVID-19 safety measures have banks put in place?
Your local bank or building society branch might be open, but you might be afraid to visit and will want reassurance that you will be as safe as possible.
We asked banks how they’re protecting customers who need to do their banking in-branch.
Most told us they have put additional health and safety measures in place in line with government advice, which includes perspex screens, hand sanitiser and social distancing markers.
We have outlined responses in the table below. You can find your bank using the search bar.
Here’s an example of what you could expect at your local Metro Bank branch. The image shows markings of where people should stand and hand sanitisers which customers can use upon arrival. You can also see the counter screens for additional protection.
How accessing and spending cash has changed during the pandemic
In May, a Which? survey of over 2,000 UK adults found 16% experienced difficulties either accessing or paying with cash during the lockdown. Of this group, 26% who had cash refused were unable to purchase an item as cash was their only payment method.
While lockdown restrictions have eased many people will need continued support throughout the pandemic to access their money, whether they’re shielding because they’re elderly or vulnerable, feel uncomfortable going into a branch, have trouble using online banking or live in a remote location where there’s limited access to cash or the internet.
ATMs and bank branches were closing at pace before the pandemic and if this issue accelerates more people will be at risk of being left without access to essential services. Which? analysis has found 247 bank branches will shut this year, leaving the UK with 35% fewer than in 2015.
At the same time, the crisis has significantly reduced cash use and its demand, with some banks and retailers encouraging people to use digital-only services and to avoid cash payments. According to recent data from LINK, ATM transaction volumes fell over 60% year-on-year at the start of lockdown.
In the March Budget, the government confirmed measures to preserve access to cash that will help protect the millions of people across the UK who still rely on notes and coins, thanks to our ‘Freedom to Pay’ campaign‘, which has been running since 2017. However, in the midst of the pandemic, there is a risk this may be put on hold.
Which? is calling on the government to take all necessary steps to ensure people can continue to pay with cash for essential goods and services during the coronavirus pandemic. This includes providing support to businesses to accept cash and offering clear guidance on how to handle banknotes and coins safely.
Which? Head of Money, Gareth Shaw says: ‘The coronavirus outbreak has shown that cash remains vital to many consumers, particularly for vulnerable people who rely on it to pay for essential supplies.
‘As a result, it’s vital that the already fragile cash system is not left to collapse completely as the UK’s shift to a cashless society accelerates.
‘The government must urgently press ahead with the legislation it has already committed to before it becomes obsolete, as failure to do so risks excluding millions of people from engaging in the economy.’
There may still be a number of shops refusing cash, making it difficult for people who rely on it to purchase goods. We want to know if you’ve had any issues with making cash payments during the pandemic and whether you’re concerned about shops going contactless.
- You can find out more about our campaigns on our dedicated campaigns website.
Cash delivery schemes and companion cards
During the lockdown, the Post Office and some banks stepped up to offer support schemes to help people who may be finding it hard to access cash.
Our research shows some 17% of those managing the finances or buying groceries for someone outside their household (compared to 5% of the total population) have used one or more of the schemes.
We’ve asked banks if these services will still be available post lockdown and what other measures they are considering to help people.
Banks delivering cash
The majority of banks are continuing to offer cash delivery services to vulnerable customers’ homes.
The banks we contacted didn’t specify whether this will be a long-term initiative, or just through the coronavirus crisis.
We’ve outlined in the table below how banks are implementing their delivery services. You can use the search bar to find your bank.
The Post Office cash delivery service
The Post Office launched a cash delivery service with the help of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in April.
Thousands of vulnerable people in England who are shielding at home and receive benefits such as pensions have been able to have cash payments delivered directly to them.
This includes state benefits such as the state pension, which can be deposited directly into Post Office accounts. The Post Office says this will ‘continue for the foreseeable future’.
The Post Office is the channel for delivering cash, while the DWP sets the parameters for those who are offered the service.
To use the service, you must be a Post Office Card Account holder. If your request is approved, you can receive up to £2,500 and the payment will be delivered to you via the Royal Mail Special Delivery service by 9pm the following day.
If you’re a Post Office Card Account holder and think you need your cash delivered, you should contact the DWP.
Unfortunately as of 11 May, the DWP will no longer allow new benefits or state pension claimants to collect payments using a Post Office Card Account, meaning only existing account holders can use the service. It says the contract is ‘poor value for taxpayers’.
Post Office account customers can also set up a ‘permanent agent’, which allows a third-party to access your account for you. This process has been overhauled so that setting up a permanent agent can be completed over the phone instead of requiring you to go to a branch. If you’re a Post Office Card Account holder, you should contact its helpline on 0345 722 3344 to set this up.
Around 900,000 people across the UK use the Post Office Card Account to collect payments, but over the past five years the DWP has been writing to claimants and encouraging them to have benefits and pensions paid directly into their bank accounts.
If you receive your payment into another bank account, you will still be able to withdraw cash from any Post Office branch, but the delivery service won’t be available to you.
The Post Office says you should contact your bank, building society or credit union to see how they can help.
- Find out more: coronavirus cash crisis puts millions at risk
Telephone banking and accessing support remotely
At the start of lockdown, all banks contacted by Which? had told us they’d been working to deal with increased demand by offering more telephone support.
Although the majority of bank branches have opened, they are still offering additional helplines. Banks were unable to specify how long these services will be in place for, but while the pandemic is ongoing it’s very unlikely they’ll remove this additional support.
Some banks have made improvements to their telephone services by adding additional capacity through branch colleagues and have significantly reduced waiting times.
Most banking groups have opened additional helplines for over 70s and vulnerable people including: Lloyds Banking Group (which includes Lloyds Bank, Halifax and Bank of Scotland), NatWest group (which includes Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest and Ulster Northern Ireland), Nationwide and Santander.
However, while many banks have deployed more staff and extended phone lines to ensure people get more support, our research has found some people have been struggling to get through to an operator, or have experienced long waiting times.
Some of our Which? Connect Panel told us that they’ve been getting slow responses to their banking queries, or have been finding it difficult to speak to someone. One Connect Panel member said they were on hold for nearly two hours to make a simple bank transfer.
Banks have been working hard to provide support over the phone. But we want to know how you got on when you contacted your bank. Take part in our interactive poll.
Additional support: accessibility features and online banking training
Most banks have been providing additional support for vulnerable customers, which we’ve highlighted below.
Contacting vulnerable customers
All banks contacted by Which? say they’ve been contacting vulnerable customers where possible to let them know the options available to them for banking offline, as well as highlighting the additional support they’ve been offering.
If you feel you fall under this category, we want to know if your bank has proactively contacted you. Take part in our interactive poll.
During the crisis, there have been reports of long queues outside of stores, including banks, which could make it difficult for elderly, vulnerable and disabled people to visit their branch comfortably.
Various banks have been offering a range of support for those who might struggle, which we have outlined below. You can use the search bar to find your bank (at the time of writing RBS, NatWest, Ulster, HSBC, TSB and Barclays had not responded to our call for information).
Opening a new bank account
If you haven’t got a bank account and wish to open one during the pandemic, you don’t have to go in-branch. This can be done via telephone or online if you can, as long as you have identification (ID).
However, according to UK Finance, providers will seek to work with the individual to establish whether other forms of ID can be used if the more common forms of ID are not available, such as a passport or driving license.
It says banks are increasingly accepting online Universal Credit Statements or HMRC documentation as a form of account opening identification, facilitating access to those without standard ID and address documentation.
Training to use online banking
Some banks have introduced initiatives to help people use online banking and help to get them started on their digital journeys.
The majority of these schemes are online only. So if you can’t access them, you can call your bank or go in-store for advice and help on how to set up internet banking.
For instance, Barclays has launched a ‘Digital Eagles’ initiative, and Santander has launched a series of free virtual scam awareness events which we’ve explained in more detail in the table below. You can use the search bar to find your bank.
However, some of our members who have shared their experiences about using online banking during the pandemic have been having access issues.
Many people in our latest Which? Connect Panel told us their bank’s site had crashed when they tried to do their online banking.
One member told us they couldn’t get a Pin unlocked to access their online banking without going out to find an ATM, even though they were shielding.
Case study: Peter Middleton, 66, Burton Latimer
Due to the pandemic, Peter – who is living with dementia and diabetes, has been shielding, leaving his house only a handful of times since lockdown was first introduced. A regular user of mobile and internet banking, he describes the Barclays app as easy to navigate and user friendly, highlighting the fantastic new feature allowing him to cash cheques remotely that has saved him from having to travel by bus to his nearest bank branch.
Banks, he says, must do more to ensure customers understand the positives of mobile banking, claiming that ‘once people see the benefits of online banking and banking by smartphone, they’ll never go back’.
However, he warns that some mobile apps are ‘too elaborate’, which can be daunting for people with dementia, with ‘too many steps, and too many opportunities to go wrong’. He says banks should educate customers on mobile banking at their local branch, deeming the support he’d received from branch staff invaluable.
How to set up online banking
The process of setting up online banking varies depending on your bank, but registration may include:
- visiting your local branch (if you can) or calling your bank;
- having a password posted to you;
- receiving a card reader that you’ll need to log on with.
If your bank offers internet banking, check its website for step-by-step guides or videos to help get you started if you can. Otherwise, call your bank using one of the telephone numbers we’ve provided above (under ‘Telephone banking’) for help.
- Find out more: how safe is online banking?
How to get someone to do your banking for you
There are various schemes in place if you have trusted persons to do your banking on your behalf, which will continue for the time being.
Payout Now and Fast Pace
Before the cash delivery initiative outlined above, the Post Office had made two of its services available to all UK banks, building societies and credit unions, to make it easier for people who are self-isolating to access cash.
One is Payout Now, a service which sends a unique reference code by text, email or post to a customer who can take it to a Post Office branch to withdraw cash without the need to hand over bank details.
The other is Fast Pace, a scheme that allows a customer to arrange for a trusted person (such as a carer or family member) to collect a pre-authorised cheque at their bank (if it is participating in the scheme) and cash it in at a Post Office branch.
To use either scheme, you need to contact your bank to see if it offers this service. Then you can arrange to withdraw cash quickly from your normal accounts through any local Post Office branch, with the help of a friend, family member, carer or local support worker.
The banks that offer the Fast Pace product to their customers include:
- Allied Irish Bank
- Allied Irish Bank (NI) / First Trust
- Bank of Ireland
Meanwhile, Payout Now is offered by:
- Bank of Ireland
- Virgin Money (Clydesdale / Yorkshire)
- Furness Building Society
- Newcastle Building Society
- Incuto (which is a credit union aggregator)
The Post Office says it will continue to offer both of these products to banks, building societies and credit unions for the ‘foreseeable future’.
It has a network of 11,500 branches, so you should be able to find one near you. However, some may need to close at short notice and some may still have reduced opening hours, so double-check online using the branch finder before setting up your request.
Banks offering third-party access
Some banks have relaxed their rules around third-party access to help vulnerable people access money during the pandemic.
Third-party access allows someone to do your banking on your behalf if you’re not able to manage your money yourself.
Banks are offering various options for this, depending on the amount of money you need.
For instance, some banks may offer a ‘companion card’ which can be given to a trusted person or carer to make purchases for you.
If you think you’re in need of a third party to help with your banking, ensure you fully trust the person you’ve chosen to handle your money.
The table below sets out what banks have told us about their third-party access policies. You can use the search bar to find your bank.
However, our research has found some people were struggling to access these initiatives during the lockdown.
Case study: Hitesh Popat, Leicester
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, my elderly, disabled mother wanted to withdraw money from a savings account and put it somewhere more accessible.
As she was self-isolating and wasn’t able to leave home, she wrote a letter of authority for me to take to our local branch requesting closure of the account.
I presented all the required identification along with the letter, but the branch staff said that they won’t allow the whole sum to be withdrawn and that they are not able to issue a cheque.
If you aren’t able or don’t want to use any of the services described above, in some instances a third party can contact your bank on your behalf, if you sign a third-party mandate to give them permission to do so.
This is a short-term agreement in writing that tells your bank or building society that it can accept instructions about your money from a specific named person while you still have mental capacity. You can speak to your bank to request a third-party mandate arrangement, although it is allowed to refuse your request.
Power of Attorney
Alternatively, a Property and Financial Affairs Lasting Power of Attorney – which will continue to be valid if you lose capacity – gives your attorney the power to make decisions about your money and property, including:
- managing bank or building society accounts;
- paying bills, or collecting a pension or benefits if necessary;
- selling your home.
10 banks have relaxed rules around Lasting Power of Attorney registrations, with six now allowing you to register online, according to recent Which? Money research.
This is a sizable increase since our investigation into how banks handle Power of Attorney in 2018, when only two banks allowed you to register online.
The six banks that now offer online LPA registration are:
- Clydesdale Bank
- Monzo (online registration is the only option)
- Tesco Bank
- Yorkshire Bank
Tesco Bank told us its online registration is only temporary and it will usually ask for LPAs to be registered by post. HSBC told us it’s using a new service from the OPG. The Office of the Public Guardian issues a code to the customer, who passes it on to the bank. The bank is then able to see a summary of the LPA without the customer having to post, scan or take LPA documents into a branch.
While Barclays doesn’t offer online registrations, it said it will ‘support customers wishing to register an LPA without the need to come into branch.’
- Find out more: setting up Power of Attorney
Will the bank’s coronavirus initiatives be permanent?
The majority of banks haven’t specified whether their initiatives will be permanent.
Barclays told us that it is constantly assessing support against customer demand so it may stop some services if they’re no longer needed. It says it’s still looking at some of its services such as cash deliveries and hasn’t made a final decision yet.
Meanwhile, TSB says it’s reviewing all processes to assess which should be made permanent.
The Co-operative Bank told us it will continually review the way customers use their accounts and how they bank. It also says it welcomes customer’s feedback to hear their thoughts on what they’d like to see it do differently and it also has a customer panel to capture insight and suggestions from customers about what they think the bank is doing well and what it could do better.
Have banks done enough to support customers?
Which? welcomes the speed at which banks have rolled out new support measures, many of which will provide a tangible benefit for many during this crisis.
However, a large number of consumers, particularly those who are elderly or vulnerable, still rely on face to face support, which can only be achieved by going into a branch.
Over-the-phone support and telephone banking is an adequate alternative for some during the crisis, but these measures may not represent a sufficient replacement long-term, especially for those who lack digital skills and rely on the support they receive from visiting their local bank branch.
UK Finance, Managing Director of Personal Finance, Eric Leenders says: ‘The banking and finance industry has put in place a clear plan to help customers whose finances have been impacted by coronavirus, in particular those in vulnerable circumstances.’
He adds: ‘We know that each customer will encounter a unique set of circumstances as a result of the pandemic and the industry is committed to providing ongoing support for those who need it.’
What are regulators doing to support vulnerable customers?
The FCA has published new draft guidance to help firms do more for vulnerable consumers.
It’s consulting on a framework that allows all firms to assess whether they are treating vulnerable consumers fairly, ensuring consistency across the financial services sector.
The draft guidance aims to help firms recognise:
- vulnerability and understanding customers’ needs;
- the value of sympathy;
- the importance of empowered and knowledgeable staff;
- meeting vulnerable consumers’ communication needs.
The guidance is open for consultation until 30 September and Which? plans to submit recommendations.
Christopher Woolard, interim Chief Executive at the FCA, says: ‘We know many more customers will be struggling with their finances as a result of the impact of coronavirus.
‘Supporting vulnerable consumers is a key focus for the FCA, and the coronavirus crisis has only highlighted its importance. While many firms do excellent work to support their vulnerable customers, we will not hesitate to step in where others do not.’
The FCA has also set out draft guidance to ensure that firms treat their customers fairly when making a decision to close a branch or ATM, including considering what alternatives they can provide their customers. Which? has also submitted recommendations to this consultation, which closed on 30 July.
- Find out more: are banks playing fair when closing the last branch in town?
Coronavirus news and advice from Which?
Experts from across Which? have been compiling the advice you need to stay safe and make sure you’re not left out of pocket.
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- Coronavirus: what it means for rent, mortgages, savings, borrowing and benefits
Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?