What Are “Essential” Financial Services During Pandemics and How Accessible Are They?
As corona virus pandemic spreads, we are forced to have a hard look at our way of life. What is “key” in such times? What are the “key services”? What are the “key workers” who would maintain those essential services for helping the ill and those who take care of them but also keeping them healthy at home in isolation? After dangerous confusion, an official list was communicated by the UK government and among the key workers, we see “those working to provide essential financial services”.
In Italy, the Prime Minister’s announcement that the non-essential businesses will shut-down leaves us with the “essential” services which will stay open during a time of such crisis: banks, pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals and public transport.
Essentially, save for banks, pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals (and public transport for their workers) Conte has shut the rest of Italy down.
— Lewis Goodall (@lewis_goodall) March 21, 2020
Essential financial services do not have an agreed-on definition. If I would stop somebody on the street to ask what an essential financial service to them is, they would probably mention the ability to have access to their own money in cash or digital form or the ability to pay for essential services or due debt. Below, I look at access to these services from this point of view only even if I acknowledge that what keeps these visible points of access working are systems maintained by many unseen individuals and organisations.
Over the next few days, I will write about how the changes in our way of life triggered by the Corona-19 pandemic might impact the delivery of the “essential” financial services. Until then, a few thoughts here.
What is an “essential” financial service?
We will learn what essential financial services are by seeing what we cannot do now as a difference from before.
Given that the main restriction now is to #StayAtHome it means that ideally, you should be able to do all your financial transactions digitally from the place you are quarantined. This depends on at least the following factors:
- The telecom infrastructure and the service provider for home broadband and mobile data. There are many “pockets” in the UK where households cannot get a minimum of 2MBs broadband data due to the lack of infrastructure in their area. While in “normal” times the residents of these areas might be able to access their online banking from home, this time it might be a challenge given that many other residents, assuming that they respect the lockdown, will try to access simultaneously other services digitally.
2. Habit and capability. Many people, especially the older generation did not feel the need until now to do banking digitally  and so they do not have their online or mobile banking set up. Right now, stuck at home under lockdown, they might not be able to set up and start using banking services this way, without any guidance. There are also many others who due to specific disabilities did not include digital banking services in their routines or for whom the digital services are not truly accessible.
The inability to access banking services digitally often means that people will be required to get out of their houses in order to get access to cash. Walking proximity to points of accessing cash or making payments (i.e. branches, post offices) is a given in the UK only in places with a relatively high-density population. According to my calculations , in February 2019, over 275 thousands of people in the UK live at a distance of over 5 km from any point of physical access to banking (ATM, branch, post office) and 67 thousands of these are over 65 years old. Many of these, live in areas with poor broadband and mobile data too. Statistically, this is a small number for the overall UK population. It would be however very interesting to learn how these people deal with banking, as lessons learned from these extreme situations could be incorporated in the design of the infrastructure of access to banking with the purpose of increasing its resilience for situations when like now, our ways of accessing essential services changes.
Let’s zoom in to Forrest of Dean.
Thinking about these considerations let’s zoom in to the Local Authority of Forrest of Dean at the border between England and Wales. I don’t know if this area is in any way representative for England. I selected this area solely for the purpose of visualising the points above. I went a bit further to see if the idea of Post Offices as the provider of “essential” banking services stands close scrutiny.
There are 86 thousand people living in this area, 23% of them over 65. In terms of urban/rural split, this is a local authority with mostly rural settlements: 30 thousand people live in small urban towns, 21 thousand in rural towns and 35 thousand in villages. Only 14% of households do not have a car.
The maps below show the ‘isochrones’ for this area for reaching post office in 5, 10 or 20 minutes by car or walking. A “time isochrone” is a line joining the equal travel distances from any given location – in our case, a post office location. An isochrone essentially answers the question “which is the area within x min from this point” and it obviously differs by mode of transportation – car, public transport, walking.
The maps above illustrate how having a car gives one considerably more freedom in accessing in this case post offices, assumed to provide essential financial services.
Let’s zoom in a bit more though. What we measured above is the time it would take somebody to either drive or walk for 5, 10 or 20 minutes in order to reach one of the 36 post offices identified in this area. The general statement when a banking branch closes is that “there is a post office nearby”. This leads us to believe that all post offices are the same or that all provide some form of banking services equivalent to a branch. We note however that only 23 out of these 36 post offices offer “current account servicing” and they are open for a total of 737 hours per week. Apart from the post offices, there are also three banking branches in the area. If this is enough or not, we will see only when the “system” gets stressed.
This perspective, coupled with the previous maps identifying areas with poor broadband, helps us identify areas where people might be really stuck in critical situations, like the one we live during this pandemic when one does not have easy and safe access to either digital or physical essential banking services.
If you want to know this information about your Local Authority, drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Andra Sonea is Head of Solution Architecture at FintechOS. She is a transformation executive, with deep expertise in leading diverse, highly specialised teams on projects ranging from large systems implementations to new technology evaluations or roadmap advice. You can reach her out on LinkedIn.
 ‘Key worker: the official list of UK personnel who can still send children to school’, The Guardian, 20-Mar-2020.
 ‘UK Consumer Digital Index 2019’, Lloyds Bank, 2019.
 A. Sonea, W. Guo, and S. Jarvis, ‘An exploratory spatial analysis of access to physical and digital retail banking channels in the UK’, Think Forward Initiative, 24-Oct-2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.thinkforwardinitiative.com/research/exploratory-spatial-analysis-of-access-to-physical-and-digital-retail-banking-channels-in-the-uk. [Accessed: 22-Mar-2020].
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