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Cash refusal ‘threatens people’s ability to pay for food and medicine’

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

The coronavirus pandemic is further threatening the viability of Britain’s cash system, according to Which?

Nearly 2,500 people responded to the consumer champion’s cash acceptance tool, launched in mid-September, which asked people to report their payment problems.

The results suggest a concerning problem with cash acceptance across the UK.

Which? is calling on the financial regulator to take urgent steps to establish the full scale of the issue and ensure that cash remains a viable payment option for those who need it.

Of the reports that Which? received, four in 10 (38%) related to a problem when paying for food or groceries, one in seven (14%) were linked to leisure activities, such as going to a coffee shop or restaurant, and one in 10 (11%) were for parking.

Two in five (43%) who reported being unable to pay with cash said that they didn’t have another payment method at the point of purchase.

The impact of cash refusal

While some consumers were able to go to another shop to buy the products or services with cash instead, or had someone available to make the purchase on their behalf, one in three (32%) people said they were unable to buy the item at all as a result.

Four in 10 (38%) left empty handed when trying to pay for groceries, while the figure stood at almost two in 10 (17%) for those attempting to purchase medicine.

Buying a product or service online was only an alternative for a small fraction of respondents, with just 3% saying they paid that way instead.

Which? also heard concerning experiences from people about the impact of not being able to pay with cash, and how this results in feelings of embarrassment or frustration at the point of payment.

This includes fears of being unable to cope or losing independence if further lockdown restrictions made shopping and paying with cash more of a challenge.

Some spoke of feeling embarrassed or patronised when shops refused to serve them, while others said they believed coronavirus was being used as an excuse to “get rid” of cash.

Risk for the most vulnerable

Which? believes these findings underline how a one-size-fits-all approach of denying cash payments risks abandoning some of the most vulnerable in society, with many already struggling to access cash due to widespread bank branch and cash machine closures.

Those who may not have a bank account, or consumers who prefer to pay in cash, risk exclusion from society during the pandemic if they can’t shop or visit their local cafe.

The consumer champion is asking businesses to show understanding and flexibility to those customers who might only be able to pay in cash.

Richard Piggin, head of external affairs and campaigns at Which?, said: “While many of us may have noticed shops displaying signs that they now only accept digital payments, our research shows that the rapid move towards a cashless society risks excluding the most vulnerable from being able to pay for vital products and services.

“We’re alarmed at the reports of people leaving food and medicine behind because they can’t pay with cash, and it underlines how important it is to have a coordinated approach to protecting the fragile cash system.

“The government has already proposed giving the FCA responsibility for cash. It’s vital that acceptance is also treated as a priority as part of this, as commitments to safeguarding cash access will be severely undermined if people are left with nowhere to spend it.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “We’ve been hearing anecdotally from older people for some time about difficulties in spending cash, but these new figures are nothing less than a wake-up call.

“Many older people rely on cash and it’s really disappointing that even after venturing out to do their shopping, which for some feels like a significant risk at the moment, they may then be unable to buy their essential items. It’s important that the authorities ensure that retailers and other companies offer a variety of ways to pay or we are at risk of making it impossible for many older people to get what they need in these difficult times.”