I WAS at a wedding in London the other weekend - the first one since you-know-what escaped from a Chinese lab (that’s my theory, anyway, and I’m sticking to it).
Two things struck me about the city on my latest visit.
First, how London seems to swiftly have moved on from Covid, with very few masks worn or thought of social distancing. The idea of another lockdown there seems absurd. The only daily numbers concerning its busy boys and girls about town are probably monetary ones.
Which brings me on to the second thing that struck me about the city. The lack of cash. Indeed, London is now, to all intents and purposes, a cashless city.
This drive towards a society where you pay everything with your bank card, of course, pre-dates the pandemic, but perhaps the abrupt arrival of Covid will sound the death knell for coins and notes for good.
A tad ironic, in a country that voted for Brexit, and has long been fiercely protective of its ancient currency - to the extent that even pro-European Tony Blair at the turn of the century decided against changing over to the euro.
But what Brussels, Berlin and Paris could not achieve in half a century - as form of monetary union with Britain - is now taking place after all, by stealth.
I travelled to London with £150 of sterling currency in my pocket, confident that my bank card would cover the cost of other incidentals.
I arrived home with £130, because the only person who showed any interest in the colour of my money was the cabbie who brought us from our hotel to Heathrow Airport for our flight home. The fare was £16 so he was delighted to take my crisp, hot off the presses £20 - although I fear he will struggle to find a place to spend it.
Every other transaction over two-and-a-half days was cash-only, from the London Underground, to the bar in the hotel; every meal, every breakfast, every coffee and scone... card only.
After one meal, I paid our server and he politely asked me if I wanted to tip him. I said yes, and he whipped out his own machine! Clever boy.
I actually found that transaction a little unsettling, if truth be told. It’s one thing to pay by card to a large company, another thing altogether to pass your precious details on to some random guy in the transient world of waitering, who may have only started work there that day, and may hand in his notice at the end of it.
The whole business of tipping is thrown into doubt under a cashless system. At another meal, I checked the bill included gratuity, and it did, but what if I wanted to pay more... or less? And does the gratuity go to the waiting staff, all the staff, or maybe just the boss?
Don’t get me started on the ever-present buskers and beggars in London. Word is, some of them have started accepting card payments and are turning their noses up at cash - just as well, since where can a beggar asking for loose change spend it in the city?
All of this is supposed to be progress, and nobody wants to revert to a society where coins and notes are your only man - and large transactions can only be carried out using cheques, that take five whole working days to clear (and probably still do, for all I know).
No, bank cards are great - even the most traditionalist Luddite would have to acknowledge that.
Even so, I do have reservations about a world where cash becomes extinct, and I do think companies have a responsibility to cater for both cash and card carriers.
Two examples: In London, a guy with only cash on him had to leave a cafe hungry because it was card only. Yet, on holiday in West Cork in the summer, I saw an American turned away from a chipper because he only had a card - and the nearest cashpoint was 30 miles away! It’s worth noting that some small businesses find it impossible to go cashless as their broadband is not good enough for a card only option.
We also must ensure we don’t leave anyone in society behind if we are hurtling towards a cashless world. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how many people, particularly the elderly, who don’t have an online presence, are treated like second-class citizens by banks and utility companies.
These people should still have the option of paying cash - or cheque, if that’s what they prefer - and the banks and high street businesses should accept that.
The shift towards contactless payments was emphasised this week by the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI), which represents the banking, payments and ‘fintech’ sector in Ireland.
Its latest report showed that contactless payments reached new heights in the third quarter of this year, amounting to almost 234 million payments worth nearly €3.8 billion.
Brian Hayes, BPFI Chief Executive, said: “In the third quarter, online and mobile banking payment volumes grew by 8.6% year on year, the highest level recorded since we began collecting this data in 2016. At the same time, cheque payments remained at historically low levels, 15.8% down in the year-to-date.”
Part of the reason for the dash away from cash at the start of the pandemic was the fear notes and coins could harbour the Covid-19 virus. However, experts say the risk of catching it this way is very low, although it is best practice in general to wash your hands and avoid touching your face after touching money.
We consumers must be vigilant that the pandemic doesn’t end up as an excuse to bounce us into a cashless world that suits the suits of big businesses... but doesn’t suit the rest of us.
Why I think a cashless society is a vulnerable one. Read Nicola Depuis’s take on the issue in The Echo on Tuesday.