The UK’s biggest banks are being urged by Which? to publicly commit to maintaining cash access for those who still rely on it.
The consumer group said it is setting banks a two-week deadline to commit to cash.
In a letter to the banks, Which? chief executive Anabel Hoult said the coronavirus pandemic has put enormous pressure on the cash network.
The consumer group wants immediate action to ensure that cash remains a viable payment option.
Which? has written to Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest, Santander UK, Nationwide Building Society, Halifax and TSB.
Research by the consumer group recently indicated that nearly 10 million people are not ready or able to give up cash.
It said despite legislation being announced to protect cash in last year’s Budget, there is still no timetable in place for its introduction.
Which? said slow pace of progress towards legislation has created a dangerous vacuum.
Since the start of 2020, 3,300 free-to-use cash machines have closed across the UK, it said.
The overall number of ATMs in the UK has also fallen by 13,000 in the past three years, falling from 67,300 to 54,400.
The consumer champion has given firms a two-week deadline to confirm that they will continue membership of two voluntary industry schemes, managed by ATM network Link and the Post Office.
If a major bank withdrew, this would put Link’s financial inclusion programme, which is designed to improve access to cash for the most vulnerable and deprived communities, under threat, Which? said.
And consumers who live in areas where the Post Office is often the only remaining source for accessing cash would be forced to travel much longer distances to withdraw their money.
Which? is concerned that it will be extremely difficult to reintroduce access to cash in some communities should these voluntary agreements be undermined before legislation is introduced.
Anabel Hoult, chief executive of Which? said: “It is imperative that banks continue to be part of the existing access schemes in place to ensure that the availability of cash is not left to erode even further while legislation is being passed.
“The Government now needs to clarify its timeline for when new laws will actually be in place to protect access to cash.”
Federation of Small Businesses national vice chair Martin McTague, who sits on the Access to Cash Pilots Board, said: “There’s a balancing act to be managed here.
“The vast majority of small business owners bank online, reaping benefits from doing so, and the pandemic has accelerated the shift to contactless. As such, investment in broadband, access to digital skill development and reduction of card transaction fees are all musts over the years ahead.
“That said, prior to the pandemic, four in 10 small high street firms told us that cash was the most popular payment method among customers.
“Millions of vulnerable consumers in particular rely on physical notes and coins. Losing our ATM and bank branch networks before we’re ready for a cashless society would be incredibly harmful.”
Natalie Ceeney, chair of the Access to Cash Review, said: “Our current cash system is very fragile, held together through voluntary agreements which could fall apart at any time.”
She added: “Cash is too important to be left purely to market forces. We need the banks and regulators to step up now and commit to tangible actions to protect cash and we need supporting legislation from Government urgently.”