Cash could be the latest victim of coronavirus – and may never recover

I withdrew £200 from an ATM in mid-March – and I still have £160 left collecting dust in my wallet. Even one of the last reasons to keep a stock of coins in my car has gone, because the local supermarket has unchained the trolleys that previously needed a £1 coin. Coronavirus is wiping out cash in the UK, and it will probably never return.

Should we be bothered? Maybe. On my trip to the supermarket on Monday I also saw a lonely, frail and nervous gentleman, who looked to be in at least his 80s, taking cash out of the ATM. He probably shouldn’t have been out, but clearly this was something he felt he really had to do. Never has there been a bigger gap between those of us who are abandoning cash, and those who still see it as crucial to their life.

The Age UK boss, Caroline Abrahams, says it’s deeply worrying that some older people are telling the charity that their cash supplies have run out and they are worried about how they will pay for their shopping.

The good news is that the elderly gentleman I saw bent double over that ATM may not need to go back, if someone lets him and others like him know that the Post Office, and some banks, may deliver cash to their door.

If you have a Post Office card account and are deemed vulnerable, that can be as much as £2,500. NatWest, Barclays and Tesco Bank will also deliver to your door if you are a vulnerable customer.

NatWest will generate a code over the phone for those over 70 to give to a friend or neighbour so they can withdraw an agreed amount from an ATM within the following three hours.

But let’s not fetishise cash usage. It’s striking how many older people have switched to online banking and contactless payments since the lockdown began. Halifax says the numbers of over-65s signing up for online banking has jumped by 63%, and their use of contactless has also soared.

Meanwhile, the increase in the UK of the contactless limit to £45 at the start of April has made cash all but redundant for most. Either tap-and-go, or tap in four numbers for spending above £45. Why bother to use an ATM, which will soon become a curiosity, a bit like a BT phone box. Around 250 disappear every month from our streets and malls, and not that many people even notice.

A cashless society is cheaper (it costs billions every year to distribute notes), more honest (no more tax cheating from cash-in-hand payments) and safer (not much for muggers to steal or for drug dealers to do business in). Above all, for smartphone-wielding millennials, it’s just far more convenient.

The drawbacks? Bad news for everyone from buskers to beggars to churches that rely on cash donations. More importantly, some people will lose track of their spending, unable to budget wisely. Society’s most marginalised, those not formally within the banking systems, could almost become non-persons.

The banks love the switch to a cashless society, which should be a cause for concern in itself. A handful of giant players, such as Visa and Mastercard, will control the entire payments infrastructure – until one or both fall over, which even if it is only temporary, has the potential to freeze the entire financial system.

Then there’s the “big brother” implications of having every penny of our spending logged and traceable.

These drawbacks sound worse than the benefits, but they will be largely ignored as the convenience of contactless wins out. And as any millennial will tell you, budgeting is actually much better using the tools of an app rather than relying on the purse strings.

Coronavirus is simply hastening the inevitable end of cash and coins. There was an enormous hullabaloo when the banks set a date for withdrawing cheques, and they hurriedly backtracked. Quite rightly, they put in place measures to ensure that those who really needed to use them could still do so.

We need similar measures to protect people who will still need access to cash. But make no mistake, we are not on a stepping-stone to a cashless society, we are nearly there already.

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