ALMOST a million people across the country have applied for Universal Credit in the past fortnight as stricter government measures were put in place to force social distancing in a bid to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

A surge of around 950,000 claims were made after March 16 – more than nine times the amount made in a ‘normal’ two-week period, according to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Worcester MP Robin Walker said: “Unfortunately in the current circumstances [the rise] is expected.

“Clearly the lockdown of the economy has had a real impact on jobs and whilst we all want to make sure the government is doing everything it can to make sure people stay in work – which we have been doing through the job retention scheme and the loans scheme for businesses.

“Unfortunately, some people have still had to be let go and some people who are self-employed have had to apply because the business they do is not transferable to homes.

Mr Walker said it was "concerning" to see the figures rise so high but the system was ensuring support was quickly available to those that needed it.

Asked whether claimants could receive money rather than a loan before the first payments are received as a way of avoiding debt, Mr Walker said he was always encouraging the government to make the support as “effective as it could be.”

“I think it is important that we continue to look at the system and find any way that it can be improved,” he said.

Around a quarter of 270,000 applications made in one week asked for advance payments.

Cllr Lynn Denham, the former Labour parliamentary candidate for Worcester, said she was not surprised by the figures.

“What’s happened with the lockdown, some of those people will have lost jobs and will have lost support from their employers and they need to make a claim in order to make ends meets and look after their family," she said.

Cllr Denham said the long wait for payments meant many were forced into taking out emergency loans which still had to be paid back and the government should consider offering the money as a grant instead.

“In the total scheme of things, as a family, as a household, you are still five weeks without that money and people end up, because of having to pay that back over a period, subsequently, they haven’t got enough money to live on somewhere down the line because of the deductions,” she said.

Cllr Denham said if work was unreliable and the money needed for a basic standard of living was not covered by Universal Credit, it could put people’s health at risk who were being forced into carrying on working in the face of the coronavirus.

The DWP said advances allow people to access money within the first few days of their claim and that safeguards are in place to ensure repayments are affordable.