Thousands of Australians were queueing at Centrelink offices around the country on Monday as businesses prepare to shut down and after the federal government doubled unemployment benefits to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus.
Huge lines were snaking around several blocks , but as Services Australia directed people to begin their claims for welfare payments online, the MyGov website was down for many users.
The government services minister, Stuart Robert, insisted the service was still “working” but encouraged people to attempt to return to the website later.
“There is unprecedented demand for the MyGov service right now, but we ask Australians to be patient as we work hard to help them all,” he said.
“Try logging on later today or even tomorrow. MyGov is working, but the best option right now is for people to be patient.”
In response to confusion about whether people should attend Centrelink offices to complete a claim by provided proof of identity documents, Robert said in a series of tweets that this process could be conducted over the the phone.
He appeared to bring forward a change that had been flagged in a government factsheet to begin in April.
Stuart Robert MP
New Centrelink customers (1/5) :
If you don’t currently get an income support payment or don’t have a CRN and you need help because you’ve lost your job or had your income reduced, please start your claim online through @myGov.
Stuart Robert MP
If you need to provide proof of identity we can do this over the phone – you do not need to come into Centrelink.
Your claim will still be processed whilst waiting for identity verification. (3/5)
The Centrelink queues came as state governments announced that businesses including pubs, bars and clubs would be forced to close. Before that, on Sunday the Morrison government said it would provide a $550 fortnightly boost to the JobSeeker Payment for six months, essentially doubling the benefit.
Centrelink Canberra. Never seen this before. Spare a thought for our fellow Aussies no matter the background. Starting to be reminiscent of my dad’s stories of queues in the Great Depression. Let’s stick together Australia. Let’s run this place as if everyone matters. #ForAllOfUs pic.twitter.com/IL8IW9E7Eq
My friend works in film so there is no work at the moment. He is applying for Centrelink for the first time but getting a number has to be done in person. This is Burwood this morning. The public service is essential. #COVID19Aus pic.twitter.com/egUvCYQYqm
As the queues dragged into mid morning on Monday, Services Australia, which operates Centrelink, issued a statement on social media encouraging people to begin welfare payment claims online.
“If you don’t currently get an income support payment and you need help because you’ve lost your job or had your income reduced, please start your claim online,” the statement said.
“If you need to provide proof of identity and you’re in self-isolation or feeling unwell we can do this over the phone – but please defer until later if you can. We urge you not to come into our service centres if you’re unwell.”
On Sunday, the government announced measures aimed at avoiding the need for people to attend an office to verify their identity to complete a payment claim, but a government factsheet had stated the change would not come into effect until April.
It is unclear why the measure had been delayed, but the government had also said on Sunday it would also hire up to 5,000 Services Australia staff to cope with the demand.
Huge numbers of people are about to understand why @CPSUnion & many others have been fighting against staff cuts and privatisation of Centrelink.
Pls do not blame Centrelink workers for delays & problems.#auspol #coronavirusaus https://t.co/alxF2FPUL1
Labor’s government services spokesman, Bill Shorten, said the there had been a “lack of planning to deal with demand at Centrelink shopfronts”.
“Many families, workers and business owners who have never accessed social security before are being forced to by the financial effects of the coronavirus,” he said.
“People should not have to wait weeks to access these vital payments.”
Services Australia was contacted for comment.