WHO calls time on dirty money: Retailers should reject cash to protect customers and staff from Coronavirus

| March 16, 2020 | By

As COVID-19 begins to take a grip on all our lives, the World Health Organization says cash is helping to spread the coronavirus – but what’s the best alternative, contactless card or mobile payment?

WHO calls time on dirty money: Retailers should reject cash to help protect customers and staff from CoronavirusI saw the above sign in an unnervingly empty pub this weekend – it instantly made a lot of sense.

The message should be getting through to us all by now – we’ve stopped shaking hands and we’re using a lot more soap and sanitizer than we did a few weeks back, as we try to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

At the same time, many of us now open doors with our sleeves, reach for the side or bottom of a handle (as if nobody else has thought of doing it) or desperately attempt to balance ourselves on the train so as not to grab hold of the handrail. 

However, there’s still no getting away from the requirement to exchange money when we shop in-store, and cash payment is something the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified as a problem.

Earlier this month, the WHO said the coronavirus could remain on cash for days and that people would need to avoid touching their face after handling physical money. 

“We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that,” a WHO representative said to The Telegraph. Where possible, we should all use contactless card or mobile payment.

The current response to the cash / Coronavirus problem

Different countries have reacted to this advice in somewhat different ways. 

China, which has a high rate of mobile payment usage, said it would destroy cash from areas highly affected by COVID-19. 

South Korea’s central bank said it was taking all banknotes out of circulation for two weeks to reduce the spread of the virus.

Kenya’s head of state, President Kenyatta, is actively encouraging citizens to adopt cashless transactions less than a week after the country reported its first coronavirus case. 

Meanwhile in Europe, attractions like the Louvre in Paris have banned cash altogether, while here in the UK fashion retailer H&M is limiting cash payments to certain tills as an “additional precaution”.

Presently, most food and drink retailers in the UK continue to focus on product rationing – but others may go on to follow H&M’s view of physical cash in the coming days and weeks.

Contactless Cards vs Mobile Wallets

So our attention turns towards alternative forms of in-store payments – namely the popular contactless card, which made its first appearance 13 years ago, and the rising mobile wallet, which has been around since 2012. 

Contactless Cards

There are currently 108.4 million contactless cards issued in the UK. That’s nearly two cards for every person in the country, resulting in the vast majority of UK retailers now accepting contactless payment.

By hovering a contactless card over an NFC terminal, customers can pay at the checkout without coming into physical contact with cashiers or payment equipment.

However, contactless payment is not fully “touch-proof”.  

Under PSD2 rules, a contactless card transaction has a maximum payment amount of £30 – a problem for supermarkets, with the average family weekly food shop standing at £60.60 (source: ONS).

What’s more, after every five or so transactions, the customer is required to physically enter their PIN in a pinpad terminal to authenticate their identity. 

Also, contactless payment cards are not just used in retail outlets. 

Last year, TFL announced that more than one billion journeys had been made on its transport network using contactless payment cards since 2012. 

Considering more than 2 million people use TFL each and every day, the possibility of cross contamination between our payment cards, mobile devices, and other personal items significantly increases as we go about our daily business.

Mobile Wallets

UK consumers spent a record £25bn via their smartphones in 2019 – a 66% increase compared to 2018, according to data from uSwitch. 

Customers link their bank details to mobile payment methods like Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay and Yoyo, ensuring physical cards can be left at home.

Similar to contactless cards, a customer hovers their smartphone over an NFC terminal or scans a unique QR code to pay at the checkout, ensuring they never come into physical contact with cashiers or payment equipment.

However, there are some important and positive differences to contactless card payment.

Every mobile transaction will authenticate the customer’s identity though password or biometric (either fingerprint or face ID) authentication, removing the requirement for a maximum payment amount or periodical identity checks.

Smartphone devices are also larger then credit card sized contactless cards, ensuring customers can further avoid touch when they scan their QR code or tap their devices over an NFC terminal (whether in-store or travelling through a railway station or riding a bus).

However, like cash and contactless cards, our mobile devices can be a serious hotspot for harmful bacteria and viruses – let’s face it, we touch our phones more than anything else.

William Keevil, a professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton, said: “You could be washing your hands, but if you start touching your smartphone screen and then touch your face that is a potential route of infection.” 


First thing’s first – stop accepting cash! At the moment, both contactless card and mobile payment are vastly safer – both for your customers and your staff.

Which payment method should you, the retailer, encourage more? That’s up to you.

However it does look like things with the Coronavirus will get worse before they get better, which could create even more urgency from an already tetchy public.

A retailer should be able to fully minimise Coronavirus risk for both customers and staff, and the point-of-payment is a crucial moment in all of this. 

At this stage, given the consistency in its payment experience, mobile wallets have the edge over contactless cards.

I’ll end with the words of my weekend pub: stay safe and look after each other!

By Michael Rolph
CEO, Yoyo