A Which? survey of 2,004 people shows how much COVID-19 has accelerated our society’s move towards a cashless society. And their conclusions include some real concerns about those who need to use cash, both as individuals and businesses.

What are the survey’s findings?

In November 2020, Which? surveyed 2,004 people about being refused the choice to pay in cash. They asked about how they normally use cash, how being refused made them feel and how often this happened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Here are some of their results:

  • 13% said they would struggle without being able to use cash
  • 5% rely on cash and wouldn’t be able to function normally without it
  • 34% had been refused the option of paying in cash, at least once, since March 2020
  • 28% of these refusals were of grocery purchases
  • 24% digital only payment incidents were in pubs or restaurants
  • 21% were refused the ability to pay cash when they were trying to buy cleaning products
  • 42% said they used card payments because they thought it was safer during the health pandemic
  • Over 75% said that there was an emotional impact when they couldn’t pay by cash: 44% frustration, 26% anxious, 23% embarrassing

This move towards a cashless society is something that had already started. Pandemic restrictions have accelerated things like bank branch closures, which make using cash more difficult. Which? is concerned about the effect this will have on individuals and businesses.

Does it really matter if we use less cash?

It matters a lot to 28% of the people questioned in this survey. And it’s a really important option for lots of poorer families and those that are vulnerable. For example, budgeting can be much more manageable for some people, if they use cash.

In 2019, Natalie Ceeney published her final ‘Access to Cash’ report. This summarised findings of research done by several different professionals over two years. Commenting on the current situation, she told the BBC:

“The figures show that it’s not simply the odd coffee shop going cashless, but this is creeping into the wider economy,” said Ms Ceeney, who wrote the Access to Cash Review. We can’t just blame individual businesses – many are going cashless because they can’t easily bank cash takings because their local branch is closed or some distance away. The government needs to urgently legislate to protect the viability of cash – as it promised to do so last year. Time is running out.”

News about HSBC’s planned closures of a 82 branches across the country, between April and September this year, is further evidence that the situation is moving quickly. No local banks means that accessibility to using cash is reduced. And not just for the individual.

Businesses are not required by law to accept cash payments. And if banking cash involves a traipse to another town, then why wouldn’t they switch to digital payments only? It’s not just the travel time that’s an issue. Security is another valid concern. No one wants to be carrying large quantities of cash between their car and bank – it’s obviously not safe.

What do other people think?

Link ATM network’s chief executive, John Howells, told The Independent: “We agree with Which?’s call for even faster progress on the government’s welcome commitment to legislate to protect cash. It is clear that acceptance as well as access needs to be dealt with too. Cash usage will have halved by the end 2021 compared to the start of the pandemic (according to Link’s forecasts) and the infrastructure needs reforming if it is to cope with that sort of major decline in a way that doesn’t harm consumers.”

Now that the Bank of England have said that the health risks from using cash are minimal, acceptance because of coronavirus should no longer be an issue.

Access to banking facilities, however, seems to be only getting worse.

Which? Money editor, Jenny Ross, said: “We have repeatedly warned about the consequences that coronavirus will have on what was an already fragile cash system, but nowhere near enough action has been taken by the government or the regulator to understand the scale of this issue.”

“The government, which is still yet to introduce legislation to protect cash it promised almost a year ago, must urgently make the FCA responsible for tracking cash acceptance levels. Failure to do so will see the cash network crumble and leave millions of people abandoned.”

Will we end up completely cashless?

It’s unlikely that we will lose notes and coins completely. But the restrictions of the pandemic have changed many people’s shopping habits. For example, switching to online payments for ‘click and collect’ or delivered shopping. And the initial worry about spreading COVID-19 led to everyone encouraging digital payments by card, phone or smart watch. But this concern has been somewhat alleviated and people are more able to choose their preferred method of payment.

Obviously, banks have been under the same restrictions and many of their staff have been working from home. Many local branches were already closed, with a plan in place to close more before the pandemic hit. The impact of the pandemic seems to have given justification for speeding this up. Banks need to ‘trim the fat’ in terms of costs, just like any other business. And underused buildings are an expensive cost. But where does that leave their individual and business customers?

We’ll have to wait for the government’s response to this pressing issue.