Universal credit claims doubled in Cumbria during coronavirus pandemic

Job centre Penrith. Credit: Charlotte Everett

Claimant count figures in Cumbria have seen a huge rise as a result of Covid-19.

Individuals applying for benefits have risen by 6,200 since the start of the first lockdown in March.

As a result of several people losing their jobs or becoming redundant, many had to turn to universal credit.

Those from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) are urging individuals that are feeling the strain to apply for government financial help.

Shane Byrne, Partnership Manager for DWP said: “We [have] actively told people to make a claim for universal credit.

“Nobody should ever feel isolated or not being able to cope, or not being able to manage financially, there is an offer across this county for every single person, the safety net is us.

“If you don’t access the system in the first instance we can’t pick you up and start to support you and if I’m honest, there are a lot of people that are reluctant to do that.”

To check if you are eligible for universal credit there is an online gateway on gov.uk.

On average it will take five weeks to receive the first universal credit payment.

Although, if an individual requires it sooner they can apply for an ‘advance’.

However, Mr Byrne believes that many people are not accessing the government help due to there still being a ‘stigma’ surrounding benefit payments.

Due to Cumbria’s economy mostly relying on hospitality and retail, many of these businesses were closed during the first and second lockdown.

Thousands of people lost their jobs or were made redundant as a result.

Julian Whittle, Business Engagement Manager, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce said: “[Coronavirus] didn’t hit all areas of the economy in the same way, and the worst hit sectors have been retail and hospitality.

“Those sectors were really badly hit and that’s where we saw the biggest initial shake out of jobs.

“In some areas, I think Keswick, the unemployment rate went up six-fold, we say doubled across Cumbria but in places that are heavily dependent on hospitality it went up six-fold.”

However, when non-essential retail and hospitality started to reopen in June, Cumbria experienced a ‘very good summer’ according to Mr Whittle.

He added: “With hindsight maybe we should have seen it coming, it was maybe because some people in the country were very reluctant to book foreign holidays.”

The whole of England was put into a second lockdown Thursday November 5 where non-essential retail and hospitality venues closed again.

They reopened Wednesday December 2, ready for Christmas preparations.

Mr Whittle expressed that he has found that many people have been setting up their own businesses as a result of unemployment.

Cumbria’s Chamber of Commerce offer a variety of schemes and grants for business start-ups to help them through the first three years of operating which includes one-to-one help from a business advisor.

Demi Lear, 21, Penrith was left ‘heartbroken’ after being made redundant after working just two weeks for a hotel in March.

Demi Lear, 21, Penrith. Owner of Heart and Soul. Credit: Charlotte Everett
Demi Lear, 21, Penrith. Owner of Heart and Soul. Credit: Charlotte Everett

Due to not yet being on the payroll she could not receive furlough.

Demi used this opportunity to set up her own personalised product business on Instagram under the name ‘Heart and Soul’.

Heart and Soul produces personalised gifts such as glasses, baubles and hand sanitiser bottles.

Since the beginning of her business venture she has received local orders and orders from as far as the US.

Demi said: “To try and find a job when Covid was going on it was like mission impossible because you could only do delivery driving, but where I am living with my granddad I just didn’t want to put him at risk.

“I wish I started this earlier, I love crafts and I was just doing it from my bedroom then I started with a couple of local orders.

“I just got more orders after more orders and I’ve expanded it now, it’s doing really well.”

Demi’s products start at just £1 and ships worldwide.

She hopes that her business will become her full-time job and will expand to having her own warehouse.

She added: “It would be my absolute dream to be able to have a little warehouse somewhere that distributes to small businesses or hopefully worldwide, I mean that’s big dreams but I’d definitely love to expand it.”

Demi also makes personalised Christmas products. Credit: Demi Lear

Cumbria Chamber of Commerce are also offering the Kickstart scheme to young people ages 16-24 who are unemployed and receiving universal credit.

The scheme offers six-month work placements of 25 hours per week to young people at risk of long-term unemployment.

The government funds the salaries for the individual, national insurance contributions and pension contributions.

Eve Halliday, Business Growth Manager, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce said: “The whole premise of getting these roles is they will go through the Job Centre work coaches, so any young person on universal credit will have a coach that they work with in their local Job Centre and these roles will be visible to the work coaches.

“They will work with the young person to figure out which role will be suitable to them and then they’re encouraged to apply like it was a normal job.”

More information about the Kickstart scheme can be found on their website.