Older people must not be left behind as consumers use cash less often and are encouraged to go online if they want to contact their bank amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to Age UK.
The charity has written an open letter to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) urging it to help older and vulnerable customers who are struggling to get cash as the coronavirus lockdown continues.
Age UK wants the FCA to consider introducing guidance to force banks and building societies to offer further support for their older customers.
It said it welcomes the speedy and innovative action that many banks have already taken to help their older customers by, for example, proactively contacting customers, establishing helplines, sending cash through the post and making it easier for people to get cash on older people’s behalf.
But it said that as many older people rely on cash as their default way of paying for a range of essential goods and services, this group needs more help.
Many banks have been operating reduced branch opening hours and have experienced busy phone lines as the coronavirus crisis has unfolded. ATM use has also plunged in recent weeks compared with the same period in 2019.
The contactless card limit for in-store payments was increased to £45 in April, meaning more transactions can potentially be made using cards rather than cash.
Age UK said much messaging from banks is encouraging customers to get in touch via their websites, creating the impression for many older people that they cannot call their bank or visit a branch.
It said the FCA needs to ensure that customer communications are clear that people unwilling or unable to contact their bank electronically are still welcome to do so by other means.
Age UK’s letter says: “Over the last two weeks we have experienced an increased number of older people contacting us expressing concern that their cash supplies have been exhausted and they don’t know how they will be able to get cash to pay for their shopping or their domiciliary care, or are concerned their supplies of essential goods will soon run out.
“While we welcome the initiatives that firms are undertaking, they don’t solve the problem of getting cash for all older people. We are concerned that many of the hardest to reach older people – someone who lives alone and has a cognitive impairment, for example – may be unable to use these new services.”
Age UK said figures show that almost a third (31%) of the 70-plus population in England live in a household without access to the internet, while 43% of this cohort have never used the internet at home or anywhere else. Age UK said they are highly unlikely to do so now and they must not be forgotten or left behind.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “We hope all businesses can continue to look at how they can assist older people who depend on cash to go about their daily lives. The FCA can play an important role too by monitoring what they are doing, spreading best practice and introducing new guidance to ensure that vulnerable consumers receive an appropriate level of assistance if they need it.
“We welcome the actions businesses and the FCA have already taken to help customers access cash these last few weeks but more needs to be done, supported by clear direction from the FCA, so every older person is confident they can get the cash they need to pay their way.
“Making sure that older people have the coins and banknotes they need to keep spending is surely in the best interests of businesses and the economy too, so the sooner a really comprehensive range of measures is in place to assure this the better for everyone.”
Age UK said it would encourage banks to work with the Post Office, which has introduced and expanded its own schemes for helping customers access cash.
A statement from the FCA said: “We are aware that some vulnerable customers find it difficult to access cash during these times and have published information for consumers on our website.
“We have worked with industry, the Payment Systems Regulator and other regulators to ensure that bank branches, ATMs and Post Offices remain open and that if they are forced to close, consumers are signposted to the nearest available cash and banking services.
“In addition to keeping branches and call centres open, firms are developing options such as courier deliveries of cash, Post Office cheque-cashing services, and pre-paid and debit cards that allow trusted third parties to make payments on people’s behalf. Banks have committed to ensure that calls from vulnerable customers receive priority treatment.”
A spokeswoman for UK Finance said: “Anticipating that the coronavirus crisis would make it more difficult for some customers to withdraw cash, banks and building societies have worked hard to ensure that all customers are still able to make withdrawals, despite the constraints of lockdown, isolation and shielding.
“Some providers offer a third-party withdrawal service, enabling consumers to allow a relative or volunteer to make an ATM withdrawal on their behalf, while others offer a similar service via the Post Office. For certain particularly vulnerable customers, some providers may also offer a home delivery service for cash.”