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How coronavirus could lead to digital exclusion in a cashless society

  • Public health experts are urging businesses to stop using cash in an effort to limit cases of coronavirus, as viruses spread on polymer banknotes.
  • More than eight million people in the UK would suffer in a cashless society due to a lack of proper provisions, including 1.35 million people with health issues.
  • It’s essential to curb the use of physical money in order to prevent a further surge of people getting infected, expert warns.

Better contingency plans need to be put in place to avoid vulnerable members of society struggling to make ends meet in a cashless society, new research shows.

Following the rapid increase of coronavirus cases in the UK, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the virus can be transmitted to customers via banknotes and coins. This has prompted China to deep clean potentially infected cash to limit the spread of the virus.

Analysis has revealed that if current trajectories towards digitisation continue, 8.17 million vulnerable members of society would suffer due to their dependence on physical payment methods. This includes 5.2 million households, or 80% of elderly homes, that rely on cash.

While pathogens and viruses can live on most surfaces for around 48 hours, paper money can reportedly transport a live flu virus for up to 17 days. At the end of 2019, there were still 212 million paper banknotes in circulation in the UK, according to the Bank of England.

Although the new polymer banknotes are considered to be three times cleaner than their paper counterparts, they can still carry harmful bacteria for anywhere between six and 24 hours.

Doctor Aragona Guiseppe, GP and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor, said: “It’s a well-known fact that money holds a whole host of germs and so it’s more important than ever right now to try and curb your habit of using physical money, whether its notes or coins.

“Virus particles will be able to sit and attach themselves to paper notes and coins, posing a huge risk to the spread of infection as the money will be transferred over and over again from person to person increasing the likelihood of a further surge of people infected. The best thing to do is to try and use your card, contactless or apple pay when you can.

“If you do have to use cash for any reason, ensure that you wash or sanitize your hands thoroughly after every transaction to ensure no germs are being transferred as easily. You may also want to wear leather or some sort of glove when handling money.”

While contactless payments are recommended in place of cash transactions as a way to limit infection, they still harbour germs; microorganisms are able to transfer via point-of-sale terminals and ATMs.

It’s especially crucial to avoid cash payments when paying for food, with WHO stating that everyone “should wash their hands or use a hand sanitiser after handling money, especially if they are about to eat, or before handling food.”

However, concerns arise as to whether the UK has enough infrastructure in place to accommodate a significant decline in cash use, with 1.7 billion adults in the UK not holding a bank account, and a further 100 million people reported to be homeless.

A large portion of these vulnerable members of society can’t use cash due to poor mental health, meaning that a staggering 1.875 billion people could be isolated from a digitised society at any one time.

This means it’s more important than ever to establish affordable and equal access to mental health treatments, in order to prevent digital exclusion in lieu of avoiding the spread of infection.