Contactless safer than cash? It's 'fake news' says ATM operator as it launches a campaign amid coronavirus fears over handling coins and notes

One of Britain's largest cash machine providers is launching a campaign to convince people to continue using cash once coronavirus lockdown ends, saying it wants to dispel 'fake information' about banknotes and coins being unsafe.

Peter McNamara, founder and chief executive of NoteMachine, which runs 11,000 ATMs, told This is Money that the idea cash is a dirtier payment method than contactless, debit cards or mobile phones is 'the greatest piece of fake news floating around at the moment'.

In an internal email sent to employees of NoteMachine and seen by This is Money, Mr McNamara wrote: 'we will now embark on is a "Cash is Safest" campaign to retailers so that we can reflect the fake information to the contrary. 

'In reality, cards, pin-pads and phones are far more contaminated than cash.' 

Mr McNamara holds a degree in Bacteriology from the University of Birmingham.

Government guidelines recommend contactless payments, especially for restaurants serving takeaways, while there are concerns that businesses are set to abandon cash once lockdown ends. 

The contactless limit was upped from £30 to £45 at the start of April.

A survey of 500 small businesses by our sister title Money Mail found 50 per cent had gone cashless or planned to do so, and just 21 per cent had no plans to abandon cash payments.

Cash machine usage has bounced back slightly since the start of the lockdown, but withdrawals in May are down 50 per cent annually, according to Link, which runs the UK's cash machine network.

The nationwide lockdown and fears that cash is a dirtier way of paying has led some to fear that the coronavirus could speed up the decline of cash in the UK, which was already forecast to account for just 9 per cent of transactions by 2028.

Figures from Mastercard this week found two-thirds of all transactions using its cards were now contactless, with 83 per cent of 1,000 people surveyed saying they felt contactless was a cleaner way of paying.

The World Health Organisation was quoted as saying that it was a 'good idea to use contactless payments' when possible, but later said this did not amount to an official warning about using banknotes.

But Mr McNamara has hit back against what he considered 'fake information'. 

Mr McNamara said: 'The reality is cash from an ATM is completely sterile, it is quarantined for 3-4 days beforehand and cash is handled by one or two people in its lifetime, very unlike cards.'

NoteMachine pointed to four pieces of evidence which they said supported their view, including comments from the infectiologist René Gottschalk that there was little risk of the coronavirus being transmitted via banknotes.

But Mr McNamara said this information 'just doesn't get through, there's no public relations department for cash.'

His campaign was backed by the chief executive of Link.

John Howells told This is Money that although consumers should be free to use whatever payment method they felt comfortable with, 'it's important to highlight, as the WHO has made clear, handling coins and bank notes does not pose more of a risk than touching other surfaces.'

But he said the fears about banknotes and coins being a way of spreading the virus had appeared to cut through.

'Link figures and research shows that there has been a large fall in ATM use since lockdown with 28 per cent of people saying they prefer not to use cash since coronavirus. 

'Further research suggests that even after the crisis, 54 per cent of consumers say they will use cards more, 38 per cent said they will do more shopping online and 33 per cent said they will use ATMs less.

'Link therefore does not expect all of this decline in cash use to be reversed and that is putting huge strain on the sustainability of the cash system. 

'What's needed now is legislation to maintain cash for as long as is needed as the UK isn't ready yet to go cashless.'

'A £3.5bn injection into the UK economy'

While they are on the same side when it comes to safeguarding access to the cash from the threat of the virus, NoteMachine also threatened to reignite a spat with Link over the way Britain's cash machines are paid for.

In the letter to employees, Peter McNamara wrote: 'We do continue to be hit by an overall 20 per cent lower "free" ATM payment by Link. 

'We have offered to revert surcharging ATMs to "free" if we get the regulators and Link to move on this.

'It is essential for the UK economy recovery to enable more "free" local cash availability.'

Mr McNamara told This is Money that reverting its 2,500 surcharging ATMs so they were free-to-use could inject as much £3.5billion into the UK economy by convincing consumers to take out cash and spend it locally, describing it as one of the easiest tricks to get the UK economy going again after the coronavirus lockdown.

But he said he wanted to see a reversal of the cut to interchange fees, which is what card issuers like banks pay ATM operators every time there is a cash withdrawal or ATM operation, saying NoteMachine were 'losing money massively on each withdrawal we do'.

The fee is currently around 25p per withdrawal, with Mr McNamara saying it would need to be around 40p at the moment to make it viable due to the drop in ATM withdrawals.

He said: 'If these machines were converted back to free, it would push a lot more cash out to local communities and businesses, supporting the economic recovery on a local level.

We have written to the Chancellor, asking him to urgently intervene to protect the UK's cash infrastructure, by reversing the cuts made to the interchange fee paid by banks to ATM providers for every cash withdrawal, at least for the duration of the current crisis.'

NoteMachine has previously threatened legal action against Link over the cuts to interchange fees, which saw banks pay less to busy ATMs and more to quieter ones in deprived and rural areas, hitting the income of NoteMachine and fellow cash machine operator Cardtronics.

Link has defended the January 2018 changes, insisting that high street banks, which were previously paying hundreds of millions of pounds in fees to ATM operators, were a vital part of protecting access to cash.

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