Third of people 'blocked from paying with banknotes and coins during pandemic'

One-in-three people reported being unable to pay with cash at least once since March 2020. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/PA

MORE than a third of consumers have been blocked from paying with cash during the coronavirus crisis, according to Which?

Some 34 per cent of people reported being unable to pay with cash at least once when trying to buy something since March 2020.

They were most likely to have been refused the option of paying in cash when shopping for groceries, which accounted for more than a quarter (28 per cent) of incidents, the survey of more than 2,000 people in November found.

This was followed by leisure activities such as going to a pub or restaurant (24 per cent) and buying cleaning products (21 per cent).

Which? said a particularly concerning incident reported to it involved a diabetic man in urgent need of food because his blood sugar levels had dropped, who was was unable to be served in two restaurants that had gone cashless because of coronavirus. The man, who had stopped off at a service station after getting stuck in traffic, was eventually able to pay in cash at KFC.

The consumer group said that one of the restaurants involved was a Nando's.

Which? said when it contacted Nando's it was told that it was taking payments through its app, in line with safety procedures, and it was "sorry to hear that a customer was unable to dine with us due to only having cash".

Which? also heard from someone who had her foot in a brace and a broken ankle who was on her way to see a GP but was unable to board a bus after attempting to pay with a banknote.

One in 20 (5 per cent) people surveyed for Which? said they rely on cash and one in seven (13 per cent) said they would struggle without it.

Two-fifths (40 per cent) view cash as an essential backup.

Recent research from the Bank of England suggests the risks of catching coronavirus from banknotes is low.

Which? said given the low level of risk, combined with the significant number of people who still rely on cash, it is encouraging shops to continue to accept it.

The consumer group is working with retailers to develop an initiative to protect consumers who want or need to continue shopping with cash.

It is also calling for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to be made responsible for tracking the number of UK businesses accepting cash and assessing the rate at which this is changing.

Jenny Ross, Which? Money editor, 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."

John Howells, chief executive of ATM network Link, said: "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."

Natalie Ceeney, who chaired the Access to Cash Review, said: "The figures show that it's not simply the odd coffee shop going cashless, but this is creeping into the wider economy."

She added: "And 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."

David Fagleman, director at financial consultancy Enryo, said: "Our own research shows that despite a decline in use for day-to-day purchases, nearly three-quarters of people think the move to a cashless society is happening too fast and risks leaving some people, particularly the vulnerable, behind."

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