Cash mountain halts UK production of 2p and £2 coins for at least 10 years

The declining use of cash in the country is fuelled by rising online payments and the pandemic, new study finds

Note and Coins
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The UK’s Royal Mint will stop producing 2 pence and £2 coins for at least 10 years as demand for cash dwindles amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a coin mountain lies in storage, according to a new government report.

There was a 71 per cent drop in demand for notes and coins from cash centres between early March and mid-April as a result of the outbreak, according to the National Audit Office’s study, with some businesses refusing to accept cash payments to help curb the spread of the virus. Although this is now recovering, the Royal Mint says it will take a minimum of 10 years for current stocks of the two coins to run out.

It may become harder for people to access cash when they need it and those without the means to pay digitally will struggle if cash is not accepted.

“As society progresses towards the wide use of digital payments, the use of cash in transactions is dwindling. It may become harder for people to access cash when they need it and those without the means to pay digitally will struggle if cash is not accepted,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, in a statement on Friday.

“HM Treasury now works more closely with the public bodies in the cash system to achieve the government’s goal of safeguarding access to cash. However, the approach is fragmented, and it is not clear that the action being taken will keep up with the pace of change.”

Ten years ago cash was used in six out of 10 transactions compared to 2019 when it was less than three in 10. There has been a 59 per cent decline in the volume of cash payments between 2008 and 2019 as well as a 17 per cent decrease in the number of free-to-use ATM machines in the two years to December 2019, the NAO found. It also forecast a 65 per cent reduction in the use of cash between 2018 and 2028, with the coronavirus pandemic likely to have fuelled that trend.

UK shoppers have accelerated the shift to online as retail spending in August rose above pre-Covid levels on the back of heightened online demand, new data from the Office for National Statistics found on Friday.

Retail sales data increased 0.8 per cent in August, according to ONS, the fourth consecutive month of growth and leading to a 4 per cent rise when compared to February’s pre-pandemic level. The August data was also 2.8 per cent up on August last year, as the sector enjoyed a faster rebound than other parts of the economy.

“The Covid pandemic has caused a change in consumer behaviour as increasingly purchases are made via websites,” the organisation noted in a blog.

“The proportion of total sales that took place online has grown by over 10 per cent when comparing the period of the pandemic this year (March to August) against the same period last year.”

The declining use of cash is an issue for sections of society reliant on the payment method, including the more than a million UK adults that do not have a bank or building society current account.

However, running the cash system is an expensive process for both taxpayers and businesses, the NAO report found, with the public sector cost of producing and issuing notes and coins coming in at £143 million (Dh681m) in 2019-2020.

“Research commissioned by the finance sector has estimated that the UK’s entire cash infrastructure (including cash processing and distribution for private businesses) costs around £5 billion a year,” the NAO said.

While the continuing reduction in the use of cash in transactions is putting pressure on the cash system, the NAO's Production and Distribution of Cash study noted, consumer organisations have raised concerns that making it harder for people to access coins and notes and the increasing costs to business of using cash may increase the risk of financial exclusion.

The NAO said a “coordinated effort” is now needed between the HM Treasury and the public bodies responsible for overseeing the cash system to work together to safeguard access.

In its March budget, the government said it would bring forward legislation to protect access to cash and address the sustainability of cash infrastructure as its use falls.

In Germany, card payments will surpass cash transactions for the first time this year as the pandemic changes shoppers' behaviour, a study from Euromonitor International found.

Germans have kept up a tradition of using cash – with some retailers still refusing to accept cards – but the spread of Covid-19 saw many try to avoid touching notes and coins.