Coronavirus transmission risk from cash is low - BofE

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

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by Bank of England

The rush to abandon cash during the pandemic may be unnecessary, according to a scientific study from the Bank of England, which finds that the risk of Covid-19 transmission by banknotes is low.

As the virus hit earlier this year, ATM cash withdrawals in the UK plummeted, with Link reporting a 60% fall in terms of volume and value in late March compared to the same period in 2019.

The switch to electronic, and in particular contactless, payments has come despite conflicting evidence of the risk of transmission via cash.

After some initial confusion, the World Health Organisation has not suggested a move away from cash, while the European Central Bank in April published research which indicated that coronaviruses can survive more easily on a stainless steel surface than on cotton banknotes.

However, last month researchers at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, found that the virus responsible for Covid-19, can survive for up to 28 days on common surfaces - including banknotes.

Now the BofE has weighed in with its own research. In its study, the bank applied a very high dosage of a coronavirus to both paper and plastic banknotes - equivalent to someone directly sneezing or coughing on them.

After six hours, virus droplets on banknotes had declined to five per cent or less of their initial level on both paper and polymer notes.

This combined with the fact that cash tend to be stored in wallets, tills or safes and so not exposed to infected people, leads the BofE to conclude that "any risk from handling cash should be low".

Elsewhere in its report, the BofE notes that while there has been a fall on transactional use of cash, there has also been an increase in the value of notes in circulation, accelerating a long-running trend.

There has also been a sharp increase in online shopping: e-commerce accounted for 28% of UK retail spending in September 2020, compared with 19% a year earlier, having peaked at 33% in June.

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