The UK government has received nearly a million applications for universal credit benefits in the past two weeks as the coronavirus pandemic has intensified.
The Department for Work and Pensions reported 950,000 successful applications for the payment since 16 March, when the government advised people to start working from home.
This is a huge increase, up from around 100,000 in a normal two-week period, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.
Around a quarter of claims included an application for an advance payment. Claimants wait five weeks for a first payment after applying for the benefit but can take out an advance loan to help during this time.
But the Salvation Army said this could plunge thousands of citizens into debt, calling it a “point of critical failure that the Government must address” and urged the government to give advance payments, available for those in urgent need, as grants, not loans, to prevent a “coronavirus debt crisis.”
Department for Work and Pensions officials said they were working “flat out” to help people get support.
The figures show that demand on the benefit system has skyrocketed since the government urged people to avoid non-essential travel and contact with others to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The huge increase reflects falls in income as well as unemployment as companies go out of business or are forced to make redundancies because they cannot afford to wait for the government’s hardship scheme to start making payments to their employees.
The government said the universal credit system was still "delivering" despite the huge increase in applications.
A spokesperson said: “With such a huge increase in claims there are pressures on our services, but the system is standing up well to these and our dedicated staff are working flat out to get people the support they need.
“We’re taking urgent action to boost capacity — we’ve moved 10,000 existing staff to help on the frontline and we’re recruiting more.”
But the Labour party said the figures were “truly shocking” and the government “must wake up and take action” to help the millions of people at risk of losing their jobs and the self-employed not covered by government job support schemes offering 80% of earnings to employees.
The government has made changes to the application process designed to make it easier for the self-employed to claim the universal credit benefit and to ensure they will not lose out as their work earnings dwindle.
Labour has called on the government to go much further, calling for the verification process for new claimants to be sped up and advance cash payments should not have to be repaid.
“People need help now,” said shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood.
“The government should turn advances into non-repayable grants to end the five week wait and make sure people get the support they need quickly at a level that genuinely protects them from poverty.”
Universal credit is a consolidated monthly benefit payment for those of working-age, which was introduced in 2013 to replace a number of previous benefits including income-based jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working tax credit.
In October 2019, there were 2.6 million universal credit claimants — just over a third of whom were in work, according to the BBC.
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