Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Almost 20,000 new NI claims for universal credit

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Almost 20,000 new claims for universal credit in Northern Ireland have been received in the past fortnight, the BBC understands.

The Department for Communities usually deals with 1,600 new claims per week.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK have applied for it following the outbreak of Covid-19.

The government said self-employed people who have lost their income because of the pandemic can access universal credit.

It was among a range of measures announced by the chancellor to bolster the economy against the impact of the disease.

Lengthy waiting times

The universal credit payment amounts to £94.25 a week, and there has been pressure on the government to announce more support for self-employed workers across the UK.

Some people trying to access the system online have contacted BBC News NI to report digital queues with waiting times of more than an hour.

The system has been under pressure since applications began ramping up after the prime minister ordered all non-essential businesses to close on Monday night.

The Department for Communities (DfC), which oversees universal credit and other benefits in Northern Ireland, said its staff were working around the clock to help process new claims.

More than 10,000 new claims were received by the department last week, with a further 9,000 recorded so far this week.

'Difficult and uncertain time'

It runs its own phone line for claims, separate to the Great Britain line operated by Westminster's Department for Work and Pensions.

A DfC spokesperson said its phone line had received 4,183 calls on Tuesday alone, instead of its usual 1,600 per week, with 57 callers hanging up before their call was answered.

They added that no issue currently exists with online waiting times for Northern Ireland claimants, but recognised that this is a "difficult and uncertain time for all".