The UK benefit system is facing "catastrophe," the woman who helped design the welfare mitigations package in Northern Ireland has warned.
Professor Eileen Evason chairs the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group. She warned that as the coronavirus wreaks havoc with the business community, the welfare system will struggle to cope with an influx of people trying to access the system.
"We are facing a catastrophe, for individuals and families across the UK because unlike other countries in the EU we are going into all of this with a benefit system that has been absolutely shredded over the last 10 years," she said.
"This is really very, very bad. We are going to rely on bits and pieces that are less reliable than others.
She said that if a person was ill or self-isolating there was statutory sick pay which was available to employees but not the self-employed, who are earning over £118 a week.
"That cuts a lot of people out and it's worth only £94 a week."
She said: "The difficulty with this is it is paid by employers and of course the employers themselves may be going under and then it gets very complicated.
"Secondly, for people who have become unemployed as a result we have the contributory jobseekers allowance. That's again for employees, self-employed left out, it's £73 a week for six months.
"£73 a week is not going to pay for the groceries for a family. So that is the solid stuff we have .. but it's not solid, it's totally inadequate."
She continued: "Therefore to help plug all the gaps, to help self employed and employed, ill, unemployed whatever. To help plug the gaps with people's living expenses and their housing costs government is relying on universal credit.
"You can claim this if you are self-employed or unemployed. They have made a few tweaks but nevertheless this is the main source of support.
"This is the new benefit that's been coming in over the last year or so across the UK, it has caused hardship, confusion and difficulty and it seems to be our only defence unless the government comes up with something else quick.
"Universal credit is an ungenerous, means tested benefit. It is not payable for the first five weeks. So there are loans but there are still gaps in the help and support available."
She said there were also difficulties in applying for the benefit online and administrative issues.
"In Northern Ireland we have a slight advantage," she continued, "because we did things a bit different with regard to welfare reform.
"We have two provisions which are the discretionary support scheme - that's really for exceptional circumstances and things like that.
"We also have a thing called the universal credit contingency fund. But I am not entirely sure how this will operate.
"People will need skilled advice and I expect all the advice centres are just overwhelmed."
The Department of Communities has established a financial support service available at 0800 587 2750 (Freephone) or 0800 587 2751 (textphone for customers with hearing difficulties).
Information is also available from the department here: https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/landing-pages/covid-19-service-updates