Vulnerable people risk being unable to access the money they need to pay for goods and services, unless the government acts to support the “fragile” cash system, the consumer group Which? has warned.
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the adoption of contactless and other cashless transactions across the UK and led to sharp drops in ATM use as more people shop online or opt for what they perceive to be safer payment methods.
However, research by Which? found that many of those who had been unable to shop for themselves had used cash to reimburse friends and family who had stepped in to help.
A survey of more than 2,000 people carried out for the group found that one in five were helping someone else, either by managing their finances or shopping for food or essentials. Of these, 51% had been reimbursed in cash.
The research also found that one in 10 people had tried to pay a retailer in cash and been refused.
In March’s budget the government said it would legislate to protect access to cash for as long as people needed it after the Access to Cash Review warned that more than 8 million UK adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society.
Debit cards overtook notes and coins as the main form of spending in 2017, and at that point it was predicted that cash would fall to just 16% of payments within a decade.
However, the crisis has accelerated the fall in cash use. At the start of April the limit for contactless payments was increased to £45, making it an option for more purchases.
Cash machine operators have reported a huge drop in the number of withdrawals. Link, for example, said it saw a 60% fall in April, although it said £1bn a week was still being withdrawn.
Which? said the government should act to ensure people could continue to use cash to pay for essential goods and services during the pandemic, including providing information for businesses on how to accept cash safely. It also urged the government to bring forward legislation before people are cut off from cash.
Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: “Failure to do so risks excluding millions of people from engaging in the economy.
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.”
Labour’s shadow economic secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden, said the research showed the “urgent need” to protect free access to cash.
“The impact of lockdown has accelerated the decline in the use of cash overall but it still remains a crucial means of paying for many people,” he said.
“Without clear legislation, we risk the creation of cash deserts. We cannot allow financial exclusion of those who rely on cash purchases and face-to-face banking.”