Almost half a million benefits claims have been received by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over the past nine days, a committee has heard.
Around 477,000 claims have been “processed” since last Tuesday, with 105,000 being made for Universal Credit on Tuesday this week, said DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield.
The unprecedented pressure and volume of new claims has led to people reporting delays, being unable to get through on the phone and struggling to reach advisers.
It comes as the department’s website, Understanding Universal Credit, received approximately 200,000 hits last week.
Mr Schofield said there had been “capacity challenges, unsurprisingly” with verifying the sudden influx of claims made.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said extra money has been directed to an online verification programme, while staff will also be making outbound calls to verify people’s claims.
They did not say how many of the 477,000 who applied last week have made it through the verification stage.
Around a quarter – 70,000 out of around 270,000 Universal Credit applications last week – applied for an advance payment, the committee was told.
They could not say whether these people received their advance payments within a week.
Ms Coffey told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee: “I want to reassure people that help, even if it is not currently the level of help that they would like, is there to help them through the safety net of the welfare state.”
The pair resisted calls for further changes to the system, such as removing the five-week wait for Universal Credit payments, saying these would pose operational challenges.
Mr Schofield said: “The best way to deliver at these volumes is to keep the system as it’s going and to drive it forward.”
It was also suggested that the department may not be fully following the Government’s social distancing advice for hundreds of staff in its service centres.
Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West, said concerns had been raised by a union about a lack of hand-washing facilities and hand sanitiser, social distancing only being put in place on Tuesday, buildings not being cleaned over the weekends, and groups of 12 people.
He said: “The Prime Minister has given clear advice and you would expect a Government department to implement that advice, particularly as it concerns its own staff.”
Mr Schofield said staff welfare is an “absolute priority” and that practical advice has been given on keeping apart, not sharing food or utensils, and hand-washing.
Workers are spreading out when there are empty desks to keep a distance, he said, and local centre leaders have been told to buy hand sanitiser amid a national shortage.
He added: “We are doing everything we can, and certainly implementing the Government guidelines, but also if there is anything else we need to do we will see whether we can do it.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, told the PA news agency: “We have been raising these concerns with the Cabinet Office and expect health and safety standards to be adhered to consistently by all government departments.
“The legacy of austerity and under-funding must now be rectified with a halt to office closures, decent social distancing policies in workplaces, and provision for staff to work from home where it is practically possible.”
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 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. If you are a new claimant you should go online to start your claim.
“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.”