Is cash clean? What has the industry done to protect people from COVID-19?

Is cash clean? What has the industry done to protect people from COVID-19?

COVID-19 led to an immediate scare and fear of virus transmission via surfaces.

The cash industry responded quickly and decisively to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that consumers and businesses can continue to handle cash with confidence. 

In particular, the ATM companies, the cash-in-transit companies and the venues that manage our Automatic Teller Machines invested significant funds and upgraded their processes to head off the unfounded fears being spread about cash.

The industry now ensures that:

  • ATM cash canisters are sprayed with disinfectant.

  • ATMs are cleaned and sanitised more often.

  • Banknotes are quarantined without human contact for an average of 54 hours.

  • UV lights have been installed in cash vaults.

  • Staff are required to wear gloves and masks and sanitise their hands regularly (between jobs).

These measures ensure banknotes are cleaner than ever before and cleaner than the average credit or debit card, mobile phone or EFTPOS terminal.

Recently the European Union has published new research confirming that banknotes cannot carry COVID-19.

“Our novel transferability testing results… show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is only transferred from cash to the human finger in very low quantities. The levels are below what would be needed to be infectious.” (ECB Occasional Paper 259, p26).

The Royal Australian Mint has also acted to dispel fears.

“Cash poses no greater risk than other forms of payment or many other dry surfaces,” said the Royal Australian Mint statement in March 2020.

In Australia, lockdowns led to a decrease in cash withdrawals from ATMs but the future for cash remains strong. In March and April 2020, the world didn’t know much about COVID-19 or how it spread. The number of cash withdrawals plummeted. 

The fall in ATM withdrawals during the period February to April 2020 was mainly due to some retailers refusing to accept cash following some sensational media reports and actual fake news

Some media reports were fed by false public relations claims from card companies and some originated from fake news about health warnings that were quickly debunked by the World Health Organisation.

In June 2020, ‘germ score’ tests on many common surfaces (by LendEDU in the USA) demonstrated that using cash can be cleaner and safer than other payment options.

The LendEDU germ scores are based on relative light unit (RLU) readings from a Hygiena SystemSURE Plus handheld testing device. The device tests for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) on a given surface and gives the user an RLU reading within 15 seconds. 

The Hygiena SystemSURE Plus is “the world’s bestselling ATP Sanitation Monitoring System.” ATP cleaning verification systems like the SystemSURE Plus are recommended by the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The germ scores for payment cards are the average of readings from the back and front of the cards. The study found the back of cards, with the magnetic stripe, have a much higher average germ score than the front (chip side) of cards.

Other common objects that are often touched by people on an everyday basis also have much higher germ scores than cash. That includes door handles in MacDonald’s restaurants, park benches, parking meters and even public toilets in busy train stations.

Cash may be used only once or twice before going back into storage, while a terminal can be handled hundreds of times per day. In Australia, banknotes are made of polymer and are likely to carry far fewer viruses germs than cotton/paper based currency in the USA.

By July 2020, cash had not been linked to any COVID-19 outbreaks and Aussies were back withdrawing and using cash with confidence.

“You don’t need to worry about spreading the coronavirus with cash,” said Professor Marilyn Roberts from the University of Washington in the USA.

“I’m a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and global health, and I believe that we don’t need to worry about money as much as some might believe.

“There is little evidence that eliminating the use of cash would make a difference in the spread of COVID-19, nor do we have data to support that this virus maybe easily transmitted by any type of contaminated surface.”

Australians (and New Zealanders) rushed back to their local ATMs to withdraw cash as soon as the initial lockdowns began to ease.

But lockdowns rolled on, especially in Victoria and cash withdrawals in Australia remained subdued. In mid-2021, the number of cash withdrawals fell again as NSW and then Victoria went back into hard lockdowns.

In the long term, the number of cash transactions is slowly trending down but the role of cash in the economy remains strong. 

Cash remains the most reliable payment method and the payment method of choice in many industries. Physical cash is favoured by many people for the easy budgeting that it enables.

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