CORONAVIRUS has revealed a lot about the UK’s social security safety net.

Hundreds of thousands have suddenly faced an uncertain financial future as a result of the emergency measures brought in to keep us safe from Covid-19. While our NHS and other emergency services bravely work on the front line of this public health crisis, other public sector workers are doing their very best to respond to a huge increase in need.

Universal Credit was already deeply flawed. Now it is facing an unprecedented demand for its support. In the past two weeks almost 950,000 new claims for the combined benefit have been made. That’s more than almost 850% the normal number of new claims.

For comparison, the rise during the 2008-2009 financial crisis was around 179%. I have been very concerned to hear of people waiting in digital queues for a whole day among the tens of thousands simply trying to register to start a claim.

Despite claims it is simple, Universal Credit is already a difficult application process which takes weeks to pay out. This situation has only made that worse. We know from the DWP’s own studies that a significant proportion of applicants to Universal Credit cannot complete their online application without additional help over the phone to the call centre or from Jobcentre staff.

The DWP will need to radically scale up its operations to cope with the demand. Some 10,000 DWP staff have been re-assigned from other roles to process applications and will no doubt be working as hard as they can to do this as soon as possible, but even before this crisis, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents the civil servants involved, warned that the service was understaffed.

The additional £1000 for the benefit announced as part of the UK’s rescue package is welcome but it has to be seen in context. It comes after a four-year freeze of Universal Credit that has seen its value fall every year as the cost of living rises.

And even before the cuts of recent years the UK benefits system is one of the least generous in Western Europe, with average benefits rates way below those in other comparable countries.

Universal Credit is reduced if the applicant has more than £6000 in savings and is not available at all for those who have saved more than £16,000. The Resolution Foundation has pointed out that, if a family has painstakingly saved this or more for a mortgage deposit they will not receive any Universal Credit at all.

In the current crisis, with so many people out of work and no clarity about when most companies will be able to hire again, families will soon be forced to spend all their savings.

It is particularly urgent that we end the five-week wait for Universal Credit. From the Child Poverty Action Group to the Trussell Trust, almost every organisation which helps people with their incomes has been saying for years that people cannot afford to wait for more than a month.

This is intolerable at any time, but particularly in the current situation, where hundreds of thousands of families are experiencing a sudden, drastic and entirely unforeseen and unforeseeable disruption to their earnings.

Other policies that have caused misery in recent years continue. Sanctions have been paused, thankfully, but the benefit cap – which puts an arbitrary limit on how much a household can receive, regardless of need – will remain in place. The abhorrent two-child limit, which limits the amount of support that can be paid in respect of children, is also still in place. Surely these must end.

It is also vital we ensure that we take the opportunity of so many people getting in touch with the social security system, many for the first time in their lives, to ensure they are supported to claim all the benefits that they or other members of their household may be entitled to. Disability benefits, benefits for carers, the Pension Credit payment for older people and the new Scottish payments, such as Best Start Grants for low-income young families, all exist outside Universal Credit and some of them have low rates of take-up.

Contrary to its name, Universal Credit does not support everyone. Support isn’t there when it needs to be, from day one, and there are too many holes in this, our principal safety net. That must change urgently.

Public services should always be there to support each and every one of us when we need it.

In a caring, civilised society, nobody should be left to struggle on their own and the state should always be there to provide the healthcare, social care, income support and other essential services that we all need to live safe, happy and fulfilled lives and which nobody should go without.

That hasn’t happened in a way we can be satisfied with. When we come out the other end of this crisis, we can’t go back to business as usual, because now we have seen how many holes our current safety net has.

Scotland is in lockdown. Shops are closing and newspaper sales are falling fast. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of The National is at stake. Please consider supporting us through this with a digital subscription from just £2 for 2 months by following this link: Thanks – and stay safe.