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Cash in the time of Covid: why we need to listen to the experts and protect this vital payment method

In this blog post, Vaultex Commercial Director Mark Trevor argues that we need to look at the evidence before we make any snap judgements on cash use.

Cash in the time of Covid: why we need to listen to the experts and protect this vital payment method

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on almost every area of our lives: from travel to shopping, the economy to health services. Understandably, these are emotive issues – things that we previously may have taken for granted are now being put under enormous pressure at a time when people are very anxious. Amid the uncertainty, there is a danger that some topics may be sensationalised without any real basis in scientific evidence.

One of these is the use of cash as a payment method. In recent weeks, several newspapers have questioned whether cash is still safe to use during the pandemic, with some retailers restricting its use.

We should be careful not to make rash judgements. Cash is essential to millions of people across the UK, according to former Financial Ombudsmen Natalie Ceeney’s Access to Cash report. In fact, eight million Brits rely on cash – and let’s not forget its importance as a resilient alternative should e-payment systems fail. So we must get our facts straight.

As with anything related to Covid-19, we need to follow the science and listen to experts.

To paraphrase the arguments: the broad consensus is that using cash is low risk from a health perspective – no different to handing packaging in the supermarket, for example. As has been made clear by the government and NHS, ensuring we all wash our hands properly, while refraining from touching our faces, is the most effective way to reduce the transmission of the virus.

But let’s look at the facts in more detail.

Despite some earlier media reports, the World Health Organisation has clarified that it did not say that cash was transmitting coronavirus. This has been confirmed by Full Fact, the independent fact checking charity, who said: “The WHO advises the public to wash their hands after handling money, especially if handling or eating food. But they haven’t issued a warning about using banknotes.”

The Bank of England also has a clear stance on the issue. A statement on their website says: “Like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, notes can carry bacteria or viruses. However, the risk posed by handling a polymer note is no greater than touching any other common surface, such as handrails, doorknobs or credit cards.”

Indeed according to an article in the Guardian, although coronavirus can be transmitted via inanimate objects, the risk is low. “The amount of virus that is potentially on an inanimate object is usually very small,” says Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in infection and immunity at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.

This also applies to cash: “Unless someone is using a bank note to sneeze in,” Tait-Burkard says. Nor should we worry about loose change. “Coins are actually very bad environments for viruses to survive,” she says.

This view has been backed up by an article published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Review, titled ‘No, coronavirus is not a good argument for quitting cash.

The article says: “Though it’s theoretically possible, there is no evidence that physical money—or any inanimate surface, for that matter—helps the virus spread….It would, however, have significant consequences for the many people who rely on cash for access to goods and services.”

The article quotes Marilyn Roberts, a microbiologist at the University of Washington School of Public Health, who says there is no evidence that money in any form has ever been a source of any kind of infection. She argues that these arguments miss the point: “Are you in a crowded theater? Are you in a restaurant? Are you in a Costco? You’re more likely to pick up Covid-19 from people exposure than from the type of payment… I think focusing on money or how we pay for things is the wrong message, frankly.”

While we have every right to be worried over every facet of our lives right now, it’s important that our response should remain as balanced and proportional as possible. Cash remains vital to our society and economy, and there’s no reason to abandon it out of fearful – but unfounded – speculation. Yes, we need to be more careful when we’re touching things – and we must make sure we’re washing our hands. But we should focus on the scientific consensus and guidance available – the things we can control – rather than creating problems where there are none.