Nearly a million people have applied for universal credit benefits in the past fortnight as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened.

The Department for Work and Pensions said 950,000 successful applications for the payment were made between 16 March, when people were advised to work from home, and the end of the month.

The department would normally expect 100,000 claims in a two week period.

Officials said they were working “flat out” to help people get support.

The figures show the massive increase in demand on the benefit system since the government urged people to avoid non-essential travel and contact with others to curb the spread of the virus.

There was a warning on Wednesday that 20% of small businesses could fold in the next month due to the collapse in consumer demand, despite unprecedented government intervention to support jobs.

Universal credit is a consolidated monthly payment for those of working-age, which replaced a host of previous benefits including income-based jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit.

In October 2019, there were 2.6 million universal credit claimants – just over a third of whom were in work.

The government said the benefit system was still “delivering” despite the massive increase in demand.

“With such a huge increase in claims there are pressures on our services, but the system is standing up well to these and our dedicated staff are working flat out to get people the support they need,” a spokesperson said.

“We’re taking urgent action to boost capacity – we’ve moved 10,000 existing staff to the help on the front line and we’re recruiting more.”

Since the virus struck, the government has made a series of changes designed to make it easier for the self-employed to claim the benefit and to ensure they will not lose out as their earnings dry up.

Labour has urged ministers to go much further – saying too many people are still having to wait too long to get funds.

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