Universal credit claims ‘almost impossible’ as more than 500,000 apply | World news

Workers attempting to apply for universal credit after being laid off during the coronavirus crisis have described how it is almost impossible to complete a claim.

More than 500,000 people have applied for the vital payments in the last nine days, the Department for Work and Pensions revealed on Wednesday.

However, benefits experts have warned that only a fraction of them will have succeeded because the service is swamped and it is currently almost impossible to talk to anyone at the DWP.

First-time claimants have described calling the service between 80 and 100 times to no avail. The Guardian has been trying over the last two days, and has been unable to get through. At one stage yesterday there were queues of 145,000 people waiting to log on to the website, where all claims must start.

All those making a first application for universal credit would usually attend a meeting at their local job centre. However, since the Covid-19 crisis began, applicants have to call an 0800 number to make a phone appointment, but it is impossible, say applicants.

Claimants already faced five-week waits for payments to be processed in normal times. The fear is that the system will be swamped unless the rules are changed. Many are also coming up against the problem that those with savings of more than £16,000 are not entitled to universal credit.

Anna Stevenson, a welfare and benefits expert at the financial charity Turn2Us, said claimants had been contacting the charity to report the problem, fearful that this will hold up the payments they are due.

She said the lack of call handlers is particularly affecting those applying for employment and support allowance, those with a disability or health condition, which rely on a phone call.

“Universal credit claimants have to make this appointment within 30 days of them completing their applications, and for the claim to be approved, the interview must happen. People have been contacting is to us to ask what is going on as they are finding it impossible to get through,” she said.

On Wednesday the DWP’s top civil servant, Peter Schofield, told MPs that processing universal credit claims had become the department’s main focus.

He said the department had so far redeployed 1,500 members of staff to help with universal credit claims, and the aim was to increase this to 3,900 by the end of the week.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is due to give more details of support for the country’s 5 million self-employed people later today, which may halt the rise in claims.

The work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, said: “The system is standing up to the challenge, but with a tenfold increase in claims it is inevitable that there are pressures on our services. We are taking urgent action to boost capacity, including moving 10,000 existing staff to work on new claims with 1,000 already in place, and will recruit a further 1,500 staff to aid the effort. I’m hugely grateful to all our staff who are working extremely hard in difficult circumstances to process claims at pace.”

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