Young people across the Highlands have been robbed of the ability to earn money by Covid-19.
Stark new figures, dubbed “staggering” by the council’s children’s champion, lay bare the extent to which incomes across the region have been devastated by the pandemic.
Highland Council figures reveal communities that rely on tourism are among the hardest hit, while young people have been plunged into unemployment.
Universal Credit claims have sky-rocketed since March, prompting council leader Margaret Davidson to describe the situation as “extraordinarily worrying”.
Compared to March, when lockdown was imposed upon the UK, the number of claimants was up by 78% in August, from 11,277 to 20,119.
The 16-24 age group has been worst hit, almost doubling from 1,677 claimants in March to 3,251 in August.
Highland Council’s children’s champion, Councillor Linda Munro, said: “The statistics are staggering and the fact that behind every percentage point is a young and sometimes very young person’s life is appalling in 2020.
“Covid-19 has robbed our young people of so much.
“Our young people should be aiming for the stars, not part of sky-rocketing benefit claims.”
Mrs Davidson said she was astonished by the latest figures and admitted she worries for the future.
“It is an extraordinarily worrying situation. People are being driven to this miserly benefit just to keep food on the table.
“I am really fearful of the bleak winter ahead.”
Highland Council is working with all possible public agencies to find out where jobs and training are available.
It is also urging anyone in difficulty to contact the council’s phone line as a first port of call for help, on 0300 303 1362.
Geographically, Lochaber and Skye are among the hardest hit areas, highlighting their dependence on tourism.
Claimants at the Fort William job centre have increased by 110% to 1,718, and at the Portree job centre by 198% to 1,163.
Skye councillor John Finlayson said the figures were of great concern across Highland, particularly in his ward.
“Local members will monitoring things closely and working with all agencies to ensure that where possible additional support is provided for individuals and families who are struggling,” he said.
In Lochaber, Caol and Mallaig councillor Ben Thompson described the Job Centre figures as extremely worrying, with the end of the furlough scheme likely to hit the Highlands particularly hard.
He said: “I know on the ground today the picture is even bleaker than these figures show.
“They only go to August when we were having a short-lived boom in tourism.
“Since then, many Lochaber hospitality businesses have closed either permanently or temporarily with many more, particularly young staff, now out of work.
“It is hurting the life chances of Highlanders, particularly the young and I am really concerned about the mental health impacts.
“It’s about pounds and pence in pockets, but it’s also people losing their sense of self-worth from their work and owners trying to deal with the huge stress of an extremely uncertain future.”
Meanwhile, Highland Council is looking at an electricity voucher scheme to combat fuel poverty, extending the winter fuel payment scheme in Inverness to reach more people and potentially using an underspend in the Inverness Common Good Fund and Scottish Government’s Covid-19-related welfare fund to support the needy over winter.
Highland Citizens Advice Bureau has recruited four more staff to advise on fuel poverty and they can be reached by calling 01463 237664.
Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey CAB general manager, councillor Alasdair Christie, said: “It’s like sitting on a beach watching a tsunami of poverty come in.
“Fuel poverty is a big factor, and the new staff are there to give all the support people need to switch suppliers, get on the right tariff and save money.”