Handling bank notes poses only a low risk of spreading Covid-19, the Bank of England has said, after it commissioned research to find out how long the virus lasts on cash.
The use of notes has dropped sharply since the pandemic hit in March, and the Bank said one reason could be fears that cash can carry the virus.
After reopening following the first lockdown, many shops and hospitality venues encouraged consumers to make contactless payments, while some refused to take any cash.
However, the Bank’s research found that the risk of getting coronavirus from handling bank notes was much lower than that of contracting it from breathing air particles in a shop, or from touching items like shopping baskets, door handles or self-checkout terminals.
Its study involved a very high dose of coronavirus, equivalent to someone coughing or sneezing directly on to the bank note, and included tests on paper and polymer £10 notes. After contamination, the notes were stored at room temperature and repeatedly tested.
The study found that the level of virus remained stable for an hour, but over the next five hours it declined rapidly, and after 24 hours it had dropped to less than 1% on both types of note.
Although the Bank cautioned that “just because low levels of virus are observed, it does not mean that they are at a level that can cause infection”, it said other surfaces posted more risk when people were out and about.
The move away from cash has been a long-term trend, but the crisis has accelerated changes in shopping habits and the options on offer to consumers. Some campaign groups have warned that this risks leaving vulnerable people with no access to cash even though they may be reliant on it.
The Bank’s research showed that in the run-up to the national lockdown in March there was a growth in demand for bank notes as people withdrew cash as a response to heightened uncertainty.
Gareth Shaw, from the consumer group Which?, said: “Digital payments simply aren’t an option for some consumers – particularly if they are vulnerable or live in isolated communities – and it is vital that they are not abandoned.
“The Bank of England’s research showing the risk of Covid transmission via cash is low should give retailers confidence that they can accept it to help the millions of consumers who rely on cash.”