More than a third of all claims ever made for Universal Credit were submitted during the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show.
There were 4.5 million claims for the benefit between March 13 2020 and January 14 this year, according to the latest data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
This represents 39 per cent of the total number of 11.4 million claims made since Universal Credit was first introduced in April 2013.
It shows the shocking impact of coronavirus on the economy as a planned cut to the benefit looms at the end of next month.
The latest quarterly figures take the total number of people on Universal Credit in Britain to 6 million as of January 14 – a 98 per cent rise from March 12 2020.
There were 4.9 million households on Universal Credit in November 2020 – up 2.2 million since March.
Of these, 85 per cent (4.2 million) received a payment.
More than a third (37.5 per cent) of the 4.9 million households are families with children.
As of November 2020, 1.8 million families with children were claiming Universal Credit.
This is a rise of 620,000 families, or 51 per cent, from March 2020.
The gloomy statistics have prompted calls to stop a planned cut to the welfare scheme.
An ‘uplift’ of £1,040 a year – equivalent to £80 a month or £20 a week – was applied in March 2020 but is set to end by April this year unless the Chancellor decides to keep it.
Save the Children is urging the Government to extend the £20-per-week increase, warning that many families will be forced to rely on food banks or into debt without it.
Becca Lyon, head of child poverty at the charity, said the Government must extend the increase for at least a year.
She said: “Providing support for only another six months just won’t cut it. The increase to Universal Credit in March last year was a clear recognition by the UK Government that people who had lost work during the pandemic needed extra financial support.
“Yet, as furlough ends, hundreds of thousands of people will sadly lose their jobs over the next few months and will need a helping hand.
“It is this very group of people that the UK Government deemed necessary to help less than a year ago, and yet it now plans to take this lifeline away from them at the very time they will need it the most.”
Claims have largely made a return to pre-pandemic levels following a spike at the beginning of the pandemic, with two weeks in spring seeing 10 times as many claims as usual.
The DWP said claims also rose in the weeks coinciding with the start of lockdowns in November and January.
The figures show there were 75,000 claims in the first week of 2021, coinciding with the start of the January lockdown.
Jamie Grier, director of external affairs at the charity Turn2us, said: “The continued high number of new claims for Universal Credit further demonstrates that the economic consequences of this pandemic are still in full swing. This is exactly why it would be such a terrible idea to reduce benefit payments by £20 a week now.
“The Government did the right thing by introducing the uplift in the first place, and they must now do the right thing by making it permanent and extending it across our social security system. Otherwise, be in no doubt, poverty will rise, and the economic recovery will be slower.”
The figures also show there has been a rise in the proportion of households without children who are receiving payments.
Some 59 per cent of households receiving Universal Credit payments were households without children in November 2020, up from 54 per cent in March.
People aged 20-24 and over 40 on Universal Credit have increased in proportion since the start of the crisis.
Shadow Treasury minister James Murray said: “People are tired of the Government ducking big decisions from social care to the housing crisis to climate change and they want to see a fair, modern, robust approach to the future.”
He added: “He (the Chancellor) should use this Budget to reverse the planned £20 cut in Universal Credit, to reverse the key worker pay freeze and to provide councils with the funding they need to prevent huge increases in council tax.”
Labour’s Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) said there were an estimated three million people “who have been without work and without support during the pandemic”.
He said: “Three million people, around 10 per cent of the UK’s workforce, and at the same time billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money has been wasted on crony Conservative contracts which often failed to deliver or even were ruled unlawful, or like Serco test and trace have been hopelessly wasteful.
“This is money that could have been spent supporting self-employed workers, owner-managers and employees who were denied furlough, denied self-employed income support and even denied Universal Credit.”
Minister for welfare delivery Will Quince said: “Universal Credit continues to support millions of people during their time of need.
“It is a vital safety net that has stood up to the challenge of the pandemic, and with thousands of new work coaches we are helping claimants across the country get back on their feet with one-to-one tailored support.
“Universal Credit is one of the pillars of our support for families with lower incomes.
“Alongside it, our Covid Winter Grant Scheme is keeping vulnerable children warm and well-fed, and our Plan for Jobs is helping people back on their feet and into work, with nearly two million people being supported through innovative programmes such as Kickstart and the Job Entry Targeted Support scheme.”