In the past fortnight, nearly a million people have applied successfully for Universal Credit. That’s ten times the usual number of claimants in any given fortnight. According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a total of 950,000 people applied in the period between 16 and 31 March.
To put these figures in context, there was a 78 per cent rise in applicants to Jobseekers’ Allowance in the year following the 2008 financial crisis, according to calculations by the Guardian – for coronavirus it’s a 500 per cent rise in claims per week.
Graph by Ben Walker
And remember, the DWP has decided to disclose only the successful applicants. The number of people trying to access benefits in this period is likely to be much higher, given anecdotal evidence of long waits on the phone and problems with applying online through the gov.uk website.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to treat this spike in claimants as a measure of unemployment. Over a third of Universal Credit claimants are in employment (36 per cent according to the most recent figures), and it’s likely a significant proportion of new claimants will either be on lower earnings or statutory sick pay.
The figures are a headache for other government departments because they expose the gaps in the emergency coronavirus response – particularly the employees excluded from the Job Retention Scheme, and self-employed workers who don’t meet the criteria for the freelancer grants. And, as I’ve reported before, even those who are eligible face weeks of waiting for that money to start coming in.
The number of people falling through the gaps wouldn’t matter as much if the UK had a generous and efficient welfare system, but Universal Credit’s longstanding design flaws and process glitches are putting the government’s coronavirus response in a harsh light.