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‘Raise contactless limit to £200 to beat Covid-19,’ says viral specialist

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The contactless payment limit rose from £30 to £45 on April 1 - but is it enough? Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
The contactless payment limit rose from £30 to £45 on April 1 - but is it enough? Picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

A Linton-based viral purification specialist is calling for banks to raise the contactless payment limit from £30 to £200 to minimise the potential spread of Covid-19.

John Creedy, who ran Cambridge-based biotechnology company Progressive Research System until his recent retirement, contacted the Cambridge Independent in a bid to alert the public about the potential dangers of ATM card readers where the card comes into physical contact with the the reader - either through inserting the card into the reader or by tapping the card against the reader during a contactless payment. He has also highlighted the fact that there are no clear guidelines as to the minimum infective dose for this virus.

Explaining the way the virions - the individual virus particles which are spread primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose - are transmitted, Mr Creedy said: “The precise number of virions required to be infected by Covid-19 could be in the tens of thousands. The disease is expressed in the lungs and scattered out when you sneeze. Each particle could travel up to 8 metres - depending on the force of the sneeze - and each particle could easily contain millions of virions.

“Two metres is the current UK safety distance, promoted by Public Health England guidelines, but this may not be an accurate measure of risk. The level of risk does decrease with distance, and in warm air will also evaporate droplets faster than cold air.

“The sprayed droplets will be likely to dry in the air and virus particles will distribute and become diluted, however the smallest droplets and particles can be carried long distances as they are too small to fall to the ground - they don’t have sufficient gravity. It is however likely that the risk of infection will be reduced with time.

“If you have the virus and you sneeze you are likely to contaminate your hand. If you take out your card with this hand the card can become contaminated, and when you put it into the card reader the card reader becomes contaminated. The card reader then becomes the source of contamination for all subsequent cards placed in or against the reader. To reduce this risk for widespread contamination from a single original person, the banking system should encourage customers to use contactless rather than card readers with clear instructions not to touch the card reader with your card. The current limit for card readers went up to £45 on April 1 but many transactions at supermarkets exceed that, forcing the use of internal card readers. The supermarket limit for contactless payments should urgently be raised to around £200, with people told to use contactless.

“The banking system should issue guidance in the form of notices at the till saying ‘Don’t touch the card reader with your card’. They should also perhaps consider increasing the £45 limit to something like £200.”

From his experience with virus purification Mr Creedy suggests that shoppers should wash their hands before going to the shop - preferably with a 70 per cent alcohol sanitiser gel to ensure sterilisation - and immediately afterwards. Credit cards should also be washed regularly.

“Current advice suggests that the virus can remain infective for up to three days, maybe more, on a surface,” he added. “The transmission might involve only tiny amounts from person to person. It may not be top of the list of things to do but you should wash your hands after being in a shared spaces, whether that’s shops, a pharmacy or a petrol station.”

A UK Finance spokesperson said: “According to the Bank of England FAQ, like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, notes and cheques can carry bacteria or viruses. However, the risk posed by handling a banknote or cheque is no greater than touching any other common surface, such as handrails, doorknobs or credit cards.”

“Most notes stay in your wallet for at least a day or so,” notes Mr Creedy. “This means it will probably infect no more than a couple of people. In contrast a card contaminating a card reader transfers this to every card which subsequently uses that reader. We are in a statistical war with a virus. We too can use statistics against it.”

Linton-based John Creedy is concerned that focal transmission points may not be being fully identified
Linton-based John Creedy is concerned that focal transmission points may not be being fully identified

Mr Creedy remarks that the way individuals behave in the battle against the coronavirus may differ from collective recommendations.

“To protect oneself you should recognise this and you should take steps to mitigate unwittingly risky behaviour of other people,” he says. “You have to separate the personal risk from stopping the outbreak at the community level. At the community level you must bring the on-average transmission rates for a single person down to less than one. Then it stops spreading.”

Current data suggests that the average person with coronavirus will infect three other people, thereby facilitating very rapid transmission. It is possible that widespread transmission could be occurring from focal transmission points such as credit card readers. Researchers in Hong Kong have suggested that between 20 to 40 per cent of transmissions in China occurred before symptoms appeared. In the US, 25 per cent of people are estimated to be asymptomatic.

The mechanisms for the spread of coronavirus include both airborne droplets and contaminated surfaces including payment cards and passports when placed on readers, says Mr Creedy.

“One-thousandth of a millimetre is one micron,” Mr Creedy explains, “and one thousandth of a micron is a nanometer. The virion-size coronavirus is around 125 nanometers in diameter - just over 1/10000th of a millimeter. So within a droplet of fluid, one microlitre droplet from a sneeze could easily contain many millions of virions.

“It is important to remember that risk level also depends on statistical chance, but the exposure to card readers is a significant activity and mitigation actions can be taken by everyone to protect themselves and others. The risk could be significantly reduced by putting in place safer guidelines for use of cards by the authorities.”

Asked about the issue of ATM card readers potentially spreading the virus, Dr Freya Jephcott of the Department of Vetinerary Medicine, said: “It’s certainly a possible point of contamination but it’s not one that’s driving the epidemic in any appreciable way. There are all kinds of possible points of contact but when intervention is discussed it’s not about stopping every single case but bringing down the rate of infection. You can’t expect to stop every single point of contamination.”

Mr Creedy agreed, saying: “We are in a statistical war with a virus. We too can use statistics against them.”

UK Finance commented: “As part of the finance industry’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the contactless payment limit was increased to £45 last week to help to limit physical contact for those choosing to pay with a card during this uncertain time. The new limit is designed to balance convenience and consumer demand with ensuring security against fraud.

“If customers do come into contact with external surfaces when making a payment then we would advise they follow the government’s hygiene advice as they would for any other surfaces – by washing their hands as soon as possible and refraining from touching the eyes, nose and mouth.”

“Viruses play a numbers game,” concludes Mr Creedy, “and it’s up to us to play a numbers game back on them.”

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