The Department of Work and Pensions has been inundated with new welfare claimants affected by the coronavirus pandemic and its IT systems are struggling to cope.
Close to half a million people have applied for universal credit in nine days, and many have been faced with torturous waits and a galling lack of response due to digital application tools inadequately primed for the unprecedented influx of claimants.
On social media, people have shared pictures of the online universal credit application process stating that they’re placed in a queue behind tens or even hundreds of thousands of others. People have also complained about waiting for hours on the phone before being unceremoniously cut off.
The government said that in-person appointments at Job Centres would be limited for everyone but “the most vulnerable claimants who cannot access DWP services” by any other means. But this has led to a surge in users of the online service, that reportedly spiked on Monday night after the UK government told most businesses to shutter their stores.
The DWP said it has so far redeployed 1,500 members of staff to help manage the soaring number of claims, and this is to increase to 3,900 by the end of the week. In the coming weeks, 10,000 employees working in less high priority areas such as finance and longer-term programmes will be reassigned to the universal credit team. The DWP is also aiming to recruit 1,500 new positions to help deal with the situation.
A particularly inefficient bit of the digital mechanism behind the online application process appears to be Verify, the government’s digital identity system. Through Verify, users are supposed to use digital information such as passports, driving licences and credit ratings to prove they are who they say they are.
Verify has been subject to on onslaught of criticism since 2015. In July 2018, the Cabinet Office’s major projects watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, advised that Verify should be terminated because Whitehall departments had lost confidence in the system and no longer wanted to fund development.