Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended giving people early access to superannuation, with almost $42 billion expected to be ripped out of the system.

Treasury predicts $41.9 billion will be pulled out of workers’ accounts early during the coronavirus pandemic, far higher than initial estimate of $29.5 billion.

Mr Morrison says people are using the money to restructure personal finances in the overwhelming majority of cases.

“They’re putting it against their debts and they’re putting it to support their mortgages,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

“That strikes me as a very good opportunity for them to reduce their risk, to increase their financial resilience with their own resources.”

The prime minister said he would not lecture people on how to spend the savings they withdrew.

“Superannuation doesn’t belong to the superannuation fund managers. It belongs to the superannuation fund members.”

Industry Super Australia chair Greg Combet said 560,000 people had completely cleaned out their accounts, with 460,000 under the age of 35.

“That’s simply creating a big problem for them down the road in retirement and also for taxpayers. It just pushes people back on to the pension,” he told the ABC.

He said industry super funds would oppose any move to extend the early release scheme beyond December.

More than 2.6 million people have used the early release program, which allows people in hardship to access $10,000 at a time over two rounds.

Australian Prudential and Regulation Authority data released earlier in the week found the average payment was $7719.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said almost 60 per cent of people accessing super early would use it for day-to-day expenses.

He said another 36 per cent would add money to their savings.

Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Scott Connolly said the government’s legacy would be a massive shortfall in retirement savings for millions of workers.

“It will ensure a harder, more insecure retirement for untold numbers of people and anxiety for their families,” he said.

Mr Frydenberg said extending the early release scheme until the end of December would support people in financial stress, including Victorians.