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25 March 2020, 14:37 | Updated: 25 March 2020, 17:07
Almost half a million new benefits claims have been received by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the past nine days alone, MPs have been told.
An unprecedented 477,000 applications have been "processed" since last Tuesday, with 105,000 of these made yesterday alone by people facing uncertainty due to coronavirus.
Therese Coffey, the welfare secretary, said the benefits system was facing surging demand from those facing financial hardship, including the self-employed who are waiting to hear what additional support is available from the chancellor.
She told the Commons Welfare Committee: "The universal credit system is ready to take that, help them through the safety net of the welfare state.
"In the past nine days we have processed around half a million claims."
Those claiming universal credit must have their circumstances, including their rent and how many children they have, verified by a DWP adviser and then face a five-week wait for their first payment.
Ms Coffey claimed it was nonetheless possible for people struggling to get help "pretty darn quick" by applying for an advance payment.
But on social media, people have reported struggling to get through on the website or helpline for several days.
DWP permanent secretary Peter Schofield told MPs that 70,000 of the 272,000 claimants who applied last week had requested an advance payment, but he could not say how many had yet received the money.
Mr Schofield said there had been "capacity challenges" in verifying the additional claims, which is being done through an online verification website.
But he said there had been a "massive redeployment of staff" away from other tasks to clear the backlog, and to try to "ensure people are paid in full and on time".
Ms Coffey was asked about repeated calls from MPs, food banks and charities to scrap the five-week wait for the first benefits payment, saying it was not "technically feasible".
The welfare secretary also rejected suggestions the advance payments issued to people while they wait five weeks be made into a grant - to take account of the hardship caused by the virus.
She cited technical challenges and said the government had to consider "aspects of fairness to the wider taxpayer".
Campaigners have raised the issue of foreign nationals working in the UK legally who are not eligible for universal credit and how they could be helped - in order to prevent them continuing to work if they have symptoms.
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MPs were told by the welfare secretary that the government's £500m hardship fund could be used for this purpose, and that discussions were underway with the Home Office about this policy.
SNP MP Chris Stephens said unions had raised concerns about whether DWP staff were following appropriate guidance on hand-washing and social distancing.
In response, Mr Schofield said that this was an "absolute priority" and that "we are doing everything we can, and certainly implementing the government guidelines".
Universal credit - which rolls six benefits into one - has been beset by delays and is now only due to be fully rolled out nationwide by 2024.
Ms Coffey said re-assessments for people claiming the disability benefit PIP had been put on hold, to free up medical staff, and that current claimants would be allowed to carrying on receiving it.