20 March 2020, Langballig: Cashier Bianca Krueger scans goods in an Edeka supermarket in the Schleswig-Flensburg district under a plastic foil, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Frank Molter/dpa
German supermarkets and chemists have started asking people to pay by card if possible — a major shift in a country where three-quarters of transactions in shops are done in cash © Frank Molter/dpa

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused some unusual and seemingly contradictory things to start happening with money in Germany. 

Cash withdrawals more than doubled in the country a week ago as its citizens showed their natural instinct to hoard banknotes in a crisis. 

Yet at the same time German supermarkets and chemists have started asking people to pay by card if possible — a major shift in a country where three-quarters of transactions in shops are done in cash. Meanwhile, the use of contactless payments has jumped.

Two conflicting factors appear to be at play here. One is a worry that people could lose access to their money because of the social lockdowns and financial turmoil stemming from the pandemic. The other is a more primal fear that cash itself could be transmitting the virus.

So far the first seems unjustified. Even if the medical and economic crisis turns into a banking meltdown, most deposits should be safe thanks to national insurance schemes. While German banks are temporarily closing branches, their ATMs will stay open. 

It is less clear, however, whether the second is a genuine concern. Can people catch coronavirus from cash? This seems a fair question. Yet it is one for which it is surprisingly hard to find a definitive answer. 

“The virus could be present on money but likely for short times — hours — and would require direct deposit from an infected person by hand,” says Gary McLean, professor of molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University, adding that the “virus would not last on cash for extended periods” of more than a few days.

“It would also depend on the number of viral particles released from the infected person and how [they were released],” says Professor McLean. “A sneeze on to a hand followed by immediate handling of cash would be the most likely route of transmission.”

Little research has been done on how long coronavirus survives on banknotes. One widely quoted study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the virus can live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard and four hours on copper.

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However, a 2008 Swiss study published in the Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal found the influenza virus could survive up to 17 days on cash, when deposited “in the presence of respiratory mucus”.

Jürgen Haas, head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh, says he is surprised at how long coronavirus survives on different materials, but this depends on the temperature and humidity, as well as the texture of the surface. “There is a certainty that the virus could be transmitted by cash,” he adds. “That’s why you should wash your hands after handling it.”

Already, a growing number of retailers are taking precautions. Some British supermarkets — like their German counterparts — are urging customers to pay by card rather than cash, as are US delivery services like Grubhub. A Russian consumer watchdog has urged shoppers and retailers to switch to digital payments, while the UK Finance trade body has raised the limit on contactless card payments to £45.

Central banks are also waking up to the potential risks. The US Federal Reserve has been holding dollars it receives from Asia for seven to 10 days before putting them back into circulation out of concern over coronavirus, mirroring similar measures taken by central banks in China, South Korea and Poland. 

The European Central Bank, however, is waiting for the results of a study by the University of Glasgow and European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control in Sweden on the risks of banknotes transmitting Covid-19 before deciding whether to take action.

In the meantime, the ECB says: “People make on average 1.2 cash payments per day in the euro area, so it is more likely that they get infected by other objects which they touch more frequently.” 

Germany’s Bundesbank seems even more relaxed about the issue. It held a press conference last week with René Gottschalk, virologist at the Frankfurt university clinic and head of the Frankfurt health office, who said: “If the virus were transmitted via banknotes or table tops, the number of cases would be higher.”

When German chancellor Angela Merkel was pictured in a supermarket at the weekend, social media users seemed most surprised by the fact that she paid by card rather than cash for her shopping including four bottles of wine.

“The cash will not run out in Germany,” said Bundesbank board member Johannes Beermann last week. Fear of coronavirus may have boosted use of contactless payments in Germany. But it seems unlikely to break the country’s deep attachment to cash, as underlined by the recent hoarding of banknotes. 

martin.arnold@ft.com

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