Cash and Covid: identifying gaps in provision during Covid-19

FCA Insights
29 September 2020
www.fca.org.uk

 

Access to cash is a pressing issue highlighted in the FCA’s recent Sector Views report, and the Covid lockdown brought added urgency to research. As the UK locked down, the FCA and the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) have worked closely together to collect and collate real-time data on the cash access points within the UK.

The closedown of economic activity during the Covid-19 crisis was perhaps the biggest in recent history. For most people the unprecedented reduction in services at ATMs and bank branches had little or no effect on their access to cash, but a small number of rural areas were severely affected.

During the lockdown (spanning end of March – beginning of June 2020) up to 15.7% of all UK physical and mobile branches and 11.7% of ATM sites had closed. Despite this the share of the UK population who lost access to a source of cash within 3 miles in the spring 2020 never exceeded 0.1%.

But the real-time study and mapping revealed notable differences between the nations and regions of the UK, and found that those areas where access to cash was already stretched were more likely to feel the effects of the loss of access.

While the percentages were small, those who lost access to cash still amounted to thousands of households.

An overview of data and methodology

Since the beginning of April, the FCA and PSR collected regular updates from the major banks, building societies, and the Post Office on the status of their branches. This included information about all ‘bricks and mortar’ branches, locations of their mobile branch stops, and the status of their ATMs throughout the UK. Additionally, information from LINK and four Independent ATM Deployers (IADs) was gathered to help form a more complete picture of the level of cash access. The combined dataset has information on about 17,000 brick and mortar bank branches, building societies, and Post Offices, about 800 stops of mobile bank branch stops, and approximately 50,000 ATM sites (where multiple ATMs in a single postcode operated by the same firm count as one site).

Using the ONS Postcode Database (February 2020), we obtained the precise geographical coordinates of each cash source and calculated the distances to local groups of residents. These locations were overlaid on the UK population density, urbanisation, and deprivation maps. To that end, we employed the most granular UK census data available at the level of an ‘output area’ (OA). There are approximately 232,000 output areas within the UK, averaging around 300 people per OA.

We analysed the local cash sources and the impact of Covid-19 for each of these OAs individually using the following method:

  1. Identify all sources of cash available within a given radius (1, 3, 5, 10 miles) of the OA centre before the pandemic.
  2. Use the daily closure data submitted by firms to check the sources of cash that were still available to residents of the OA on this day.
  3. Flag areas having lost access due to a branch or ATM closure, within 3, 5 or 10 miles.
  4. For areas that lost access – identify the specific closure(s) that triggered the loss.
  5. Use the latest Census data to estimate the population and characteristics of the OA that has been affected by the loss of access.

To enable timely detection and prioritisation of cases with a material loss of access, the monitoring of the impacts of Covid-19 focused on access to cash sources within 3 miles. However, this radius does not necessarily reflect our view of what is a reasonable or appropriate distance to travel to access cash in normal circumstances.

The timeline of lockdown closures

The first thing to note is that Covid-19 brought a large and rapid reduction in the sources of cash across the UK.

All mobile bank branches had to be withdrawn from operation due to social distancing requirements for the duration of the lockdown.

Staff illness, self-isolation, and general safety concerns also led to temporary closures of up to 11% of bricks and mortar bank and Post Office branches across the UK. This declined over the course of the lockdown as firms adjusted to the new operating environment, but over 5% of regular branches (and over 10% of all branch locations) remained closed until at least the beginning of June.

The closure timeline was somewhat different for ATMs. Just over 7% of ATM sites became unavailable at the start of the lockdown, largely because the businesses where they were located – shopping centres, pubs, universities – had to close. In April, the share of closed ATM sites across the country climbed to almost 12% due to further access restrictions and maintenance staff shortages, before starting to come down again.

UK closures of cash sources during lockdown – by source type

Loss of access to cash

Fewer people across the UK suffered a material reduction in access to cash due to Covid-19 than the large scale of closures might suggest. The share of the UK population who lost access to all sources of cash within 3 miles of their home remained below 0.1% throughout the lockdown, although the absolute numbers were substantial, reaching 59,000 people at the peak. Even among those consumers, however, two thirds still had an operating source of cash within 5 miles.

UK loss of access to cash during lockdown – by distance from home

There were, however, important regional differences in this reduction of access. On 21 April, when the overall UK access to cash was at its lowest, almost 0.5% of the population of Scotland had lost access to all prior cash sources within 3 miles, while the corresponding figure for England was only 0.07%, and Northern Ireland saw no material loss of access at all.

Again, despite the small percentages, the absolute numbers of affected consumers were quite substantial: around 31,000 in England, 25,000 in Scotland, and 4,000 in Wales.

Loss of access to cash due to Covid-19 lockdown, by country

The maps below provide a more detailed insight into this regional variation by breaking down weekly losses of access by local authority areas and showing how the situation in each region evolved between early April and late May. In general, significant reductions in access were very short-lived in most of the UK, but access to cash in more remote areas of North Scotland, which often rely on mobile branch service, was more difficult to restore promptly.

 7 April 2020                                                                                                                          21 May 2020


Which closures affected access to cash the most?

The majority of the closures of sources of cash during the lockdown occurred in areas where alternative sources were still operating not far away. On average, only one in thirty (3.3%) closures resulted in a material reduction of access to cash for local residents.

However, there was significant geographic variation in the likelihood of closures having material impact on access. Almost three quarters (74%) of Covid-related closures of cash sources have been in large and medium urban areas, where the likelihood of an individual closure resulting in a loss of access within three miles was extremely low (0.21%).

But among the closures of cash sources in rural areas due to Covid-19 one out of nine (11.7%) led to local residents losing access to cash within a 3 mile radius.

The impact also varied by the type of the cash source that was withdrawn. Among ATMs and bricks and mortar branch closures, around 5% left local residents with no alternative nearby. But the impact of mobile branch and Post Office closures was more pronounced. More than 15% of closures of these services led to a loss of access to cash within 3 miles for local residents.

Share of closures which led to loss of cash access within 3 miles, by type of cash source.

 

The Covid-19 crisis put the UK’s cash infrastructure to the test. While the aggregate picture may show access to cash was sustained for the overwhelming majority of the population, it has revealed the points of weakness – those areas which by nature of their location or the type of cash services upon which they depend are more at risk in the event of a lockdown or similar crisis.

Next steps

This real-time study of access to cash during the Covid-19 crisis forms a part of a larger body of ongoing work being carried out to ensure that access to cash is maintained in the longer term.

As part of the wider programme, the FCA, PSR, and researchers from the University of Bristol aim to build upon this initial Covid-19 mapping work to create a more comprehensive picture of cash access across the UK and to better understand demand for cash among consumers. We are using this analysis to inform our work with the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy group, that includes the FCA, PSR, Bank of England, and HM Treasury, to develop suitable solutions for cash access over the longer term.

 

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