The scale of the hardship caused by Covid-19 has been laid bare with new figures showing that more than a third of claims since universal credit was introduced have been made during the pandemic.
The number of people claiming the payment has doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to data released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
It prompted calls by charities and anti-poverty campaigners for the government to extend a £20-a-week increase to universal credit, which is due to end in March, amid warnings that many families will be forced to rely on food banks or fall into debt.
There were 4.5m claims for the benefit between 13 March 2020 and 14 January this year, according to the DWP figures. It represents 39% of all claims since universal credit was introduced in April 2013.
The latest available figures also show there were 4.9 million households on universal credit in November 2020 – up 2.2 million since March.
More than a third (37.5%) of the 4.9 million households are families with children. More than 1.8 million families with children were claiming the payment as of November, a rise of 51% from March.
Save the Children said that the UK government had to extend the temporary £20-a-week increase for at least a year as hundreds of thousands of people were expected to lose their jobs over the next few months as furlough ends.
“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,” said Becca Lyon, head of child poverty at the charity.
There were also indications of a rise in the proportion of households without children that are receiving payments. Some 59% of households getting the payments were households without children in November 2020, up from 54% in March.
The minister for welfare delivery, Will Quince, said universal credit was a vital safety net that had stood up to the challenge of the pandemic and was 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,” he said.