Cash use has declined rapidly amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with serious questions surrounding its virus spreading potential, but should cash’s reputation have slumped sooner?

There are over 3.9 billion Bank of England notes in circulation, totalling around £71 billion.

The £20 note was the latest denomination to undergo a paper to polymer facelift, joining the £5 and £10 notes which underwent the procedure in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

The revamp makes the notes less susceptible to fraud and more durable, with estimates suggesting the new polymer versions will last around two-and-a-half times longer than their paper counterparts.

A paper £20 note was thought to change hands almost 2,500 times during its near 10-year lifespan, therefore, in theory, a polymer type can expect a quarter of a century lifetime, plausibly being exchanged nearly 6,000 times.

The concern arises when the hygiene of cash is examined.

In a study by academics at the London Metropolitan University, it was found that cash, both notes as well as coins, were a breeding ground for bacteria.

The study examined 36 samples taken from a random selection of all denominations of notes and coins.

Over a period of eight weeks in a controlled lab environment, Professor of Microbiology, Dr Paul Matewele and students analysed the bacteria.

Their research discovered that 19 forms of bacteria were present on the cash, including two life threatening bacteria associated with superbugs Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Enterococcus faecium (VRE).

The antibiotic-resistant MRSA associated bacteria was found on the 2p, 5p, 10p, £1 and £2 coins, as well as the £10, £20 and £50 notes.

Listeria, which can cause food poisoning, was present on 20p, 50p, and £1 coins and on the notes.

Bacteria found in human faeces was also prevalent amongst the selection of cash.

And it is not the only study of its kind, with similar work by PLOS ONE researchers swabbing $1 dollar bills from a New York City bank finding hundreds of microorganisms.

The most abundant organisms were those responsible for causing acne, as well as features from microbes from mouths and DNA from pets and indeed, viruses.

The findings are unsurprising when considered alongside the frequency cash is transferred from person to person.

The downturn in passing cash can of course be traced back to the introduction of the credit card in 1966, and again in 1987 with the arrival of debit cards.

With rapid progress in contactless and device payments such as Apple Pay, the card movement is naturally a more sanitary choice for those conscious of what could be on their cash.

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