The UK government’s coronavirus job retention scheme was flooded with more than 2,200 applications every minute after it opened to claims on Monday.
Firms are expected to seek refunded wages for millions of furloughed workers after HMRC’s online furlough portal went live on Monday 20 April.
The Treasury announced the unprecedented wage subsidy scheme last month, in a bid to prevent the coronavirus and government lockdown causing widespread lay-offs.
Unemployment has jumped in recent weeks, but analysts say around 8 million workers could see their jobs protected through the furloughing scheme.
HMRC chief executive Jim Harra told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that 67,000 claims from employers had been made in the first 30 minutes.
Employees at risk of redundancy can be ‘furloughed,’ put on paid leave with the government pledging to cover 80% of their wages up to £2,500 a month.
Organisations apply for the government grants as a refund rather than upfront, with millions of workers already thought to have been furloughed.
The government expected to be flooded with applications after the scheme went live at 8am on Monday. The website appeared to be functioning normally despite high demand, with no officially reported IT issues.
Treasury officials say its online application service can handle up to 450,000 applications per hour. Applicants should receive funds within six days, with the government hoping many will be able to meet April’s payroll.
The scheme was due to cover wages until the end of May, but was extended by another month last week and could keep running if the lockdown continues to cripple the economy.
Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), called the launch an “important milestone” and praised the government for stepping in to protect jobs.
Two-thirds of BCC member firms across the UK say they have already furloughed some workers.
Separate analysis by the Resolution Foundation suggests almost half the 3.3 million-strong UK workforce in retail and hospitality has been or will be furloughed. The sectors are among the hardest hit by the government’s restrictions on activity.
But Marshall warned it was “essential” the application process was smooth and firms received cash as soon as possible. “Any delay would exacerbate the cash crisis many companies are facing and could threaten jobs and businesses.”
Daniel Tomlinson, an economist at the Resolution Foundation said the scheme was “what stands between Britain experiencing high unemployment over the coming months, and catastrophic depression-era levels of long-term joblessness.”
He called for regular updates on application numbers and progress, and for the scheme to be extended to include those who have seen their hours slashed. Staff are not allowed to continue working for their employer while being paid under the scheme.