A quarter of Northern Irish consumers have struggled to access cash during the pandemic according to Which?, fuelling fears that Covid is hastening the UK’s transition towards a cashless society before millions of people are ready.
The consumer champion carried out extensive research with more than 1,000 people in Northern Ireland during December 2020 to uncover and understand the key issues for them in its annual Consumers in Northern Ireland Report.
The report found that while more consumers are switching from cash to digital payments as a result of the coronavirus crisis, cash remains an important payment method for many people in Northern Ireland – even more so than in other parts of the UK.
One in seven (14%) Northern Irish consumers told Which? they use cash every day, while a further two in five (40%) use the payment method at least once a week, significantly more than the UK average (34%).
The consumer champion found that cash use is higher among less well-off consumers, but across all Northern Irish consumers only three per cent of people say they never use cash.
Which? believes it is crucial that cash remains widely available and free to access for those who need it, but this access has declined in recent years due to ATM and bank branch closures.
Worryingly, a quarter (23%) of Northern Irish consumers told Which? they had experienced difficulties in accessing cash.
According to Which? analysis of data from Link – the UK’s largest cashpoint network – one in five (22%) free ATMs in Northern Ireland have disappeared in the last three years.
Meanwhile, the nation had a 78 per cent increase in the number of surcharging or pay-to-use ATMs across the same period. Which? has previously found that conversions from free-to-use to pay-to-use have been more common in rural areas and areas that have greater levels of deprivation.
The bank branch network has also seen widespread cuts and this is due to worsen this year. According to Which? research, 99 branches will have closed between 2015 and the end of this year – that’s almost two in five of Northern Ireland’s bank branches. Earlier this month Bank of Ireland announced it would be shutting more than half its remaining branches in Northern Ireland in response to greater costs due to Covid and more customers switching to digital banking.
Which? also found that more than a fifth (22%) of Northern Irish consumers had been blocked from paying with cash in the three months prior to the December survey.
That figure is highly concerning given the significant numbers of people that still need cash to pay for essential goods and services, particularly during tough coronavirus measures.
Which? has campaigned extensively for cash to be protected for as long as it is needed and welcomed the UK government’s 2020 Budget commitment that it would legislate to do so. However progress since then has been slow.
The consumer champion has called for the government to set out a roadmap for this much-needed legislation urgently and for the FCA to be made responsible for tracking cash acceptance levels.
Meanwhile, the report also outlines the huge – but uneven – impact the pandemic has had on households across Northern Ireland. Two in five (39%) consumers said they had needed to make some kind of financial adjustment to cover essential spending such as utility bills, housing costs and groceries.
Concern about the long-term impact of Brexit was the biggest non-Covid worry among Northern Irish consumers. Seven in 10 (71%) said they were worried – significantly higher than the UK average.
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said:
“Our research gives a snapshot of the issues that matter most to consumers in Northern Ireland in a year that has been dominated by the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Coronavirus has accelerated the decline of the UK’s fragile cash system, and this is a major issue for people in Northern Ireland, where consumers are more likely to use cash regularly than in other parts of the UK.
“The UK government must act urgently on its promise to protect cash by setting out its plans for legislation. Failure to do so risks irreparable damage to our cash network, which could see some of the most vulnerable people in society left behind.”
Notes to editors:
 The Which? Report ‘Consumers in Northern Ireland 2021’ is available at: https://about-which.s3.amazonaws.com/about-us/media/documents/604f8141cf90b-Consumers_in_NI_2021_Which.pdf
 Yonder, on behalf of Which? conducted a survey of more than 1,000 consumers in Northern Ireland from 4th-18th December 2020, with quotas and response weighting used to obtain a nationally representative sample for each nation according to their known age and gender profiles.
 ATM figures are based on Which? analysis of LINK data for January 2018 and December 2020.
Northern Ireland free-to-use ATMs
January 2018 was 1,873
December 2020 was 1,453
For a loss of 420 free-to-use ATMs between January 2018 and December 2020 in NI.
Northern Ireland pay-to-use ATMs
January 2018 was 212
December 2020 was 377
For an increase of 165 pay-to-use ATMs between January 2018 and December 2020 in NI.
Northern Ireland Bank Branches
99 physical bank branches will have closed between 2015 and the end of this year in Northern Ireland taking the number of branches from 261 to 162.
 Which? research tracking bank branch closures can be found here: https://www.which.co.uk/money/banking/switching-your-bank/bank-branch-closures-is-your-local-bank-closing-a28n44c8z0h5
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