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Rush on Centrelink as demand soars due to coronavirus impact

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Huge queues have formed at Centrelink offices around Adelaide and the nation, as the MyGov website crashed today under “unprecedented” demand of people trying to access new higher payments or register after losing their job in the tsunami of coronavirus business closures.

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The website giving Australians access to government services crashed this morning under extreme demand, as people went online while dealing with the rapid impact of the pandemic.

Screenshot: AAP

“There is unprecedented demand for the service right now, but Australians need to be patient. Try logging on later today or even tomorrow,” Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said today.

He told reporters in Canberra: “MyGov has not been offline, it’s simply suffered from a distributed denial of service attack this morning.”

But he later clarified the claim, saying the site could only handle 55,000 users at one time, but 95,000 tried to log this morning.

This triggered a distributed denial of service alarm as the system thought it was under attack.

“The DDoS alarms show no evidence of a specific attack today,” Robert said.

He said that didn’t mean there was no need for tighter cyber security and urged people to go online to start their claims.

The rush on Centrelink offices was also prompted by first-time welfare recipients being told told they can only get a customer reference number by applying in person.

The sudden closure of pubs and many other hospitality, event and arts-based businesses in the past week in the face of the pandemic has thrown tens of thousands of people around the country, many of them casual, out of work and needing to seek urgent income support.

At Centrelink’s Norwood office in the heart of Premier Steven Marshall’s electorate of Dunstan today, a long queue snaked down Edward Street and into Orange Lane.

At least one person brought their own stool to sit on, as Centrelink staff came outside to advise those waiting.

Norwood Centrelink staff advise people waiting to get into the office. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Many families, workers and business owners have been forced to seek social security payments as the pandemic throws the national economy into chaos.

One person in the queue at Norwood today, who gave his name as Jack, told InDaily he had been stood down from his job at an events business last week and had to queue at Centrelink in order to register for the first time.

“I’m thinking it’s about three hours from the end of the queue to the front; one thing I have now is time on my hands,” he said.

After registering, Jack expected to have to queue again in further days to access services – particularly if MyGov crashed again.

“It’s quite weird, like the 1920s Depression where you have to line up all day,” he said.

“It should be able to be done online, but if everybody is trying to get online at the same time it will break down.”

Jack said one friend had told him that at another Centrelink office, only a certain amount of people were allowed in at a time and those left outside were “banging on the door – they weren’t happy”.

Marshall later told reporters “the scenes in SA are absolutely heartbreaking”.

“We’ve seen widespread business failure and so many other businesses really teetering on the brink,” he said.

“It’s going to take some days to process this massive, massive volume in front of Centrelink offices… but for many people it’s going to be a very tough year.”

The Community and Public Sector Union, which union represents Centrelink workers, said today the Federal Government had “failed to anticipate the pressure on Centrelink staff and must immediately act to protect both workers and the community”.

“In this time of crisis, the Morrison Government needs to be providing clear and certain advice that there are other ways to engage with government services,” the union said in a statement.

“This is critical to enforcing social distancing and flattening the curve.”

The union argued Centrelink and Services Australia staff “must be protected to ensure that services can continue to be rolled out as quickly as possible”.

“The health and safety of our members is paramount to the national response to this crisis… the CPSU will continue to work with the agency to ensure that frontline staff have access to Personal Protection Equipment, and that social distancing is enforced.

“It is also essential that the agency increase security at all locations to monitor and enforce safe centre capacity and social distancing in queues.”

The union wants the Government to backdate payments for new applications to the day people lost employment or shifts.

Opposition frontbencher Bill Shorten said the unprecedented demand was “entirely foreseeable”.

Shorten said Australians should not be forced to wait weeks to access welfare.

“But at this hour of need, Australians are having to grapple with inadequate service, online glitches and a lack of planning to deal with demand at Centrelink shopfronts,” he said.

Shorten said the minister must do better.

“He must ensure Centrelink services – online and in person – are working now when Australians need them most.”

Part of the queue outside a Sydney Centrelink office. Photo: AAP/James Gourley

The Morrison Government on the weekend announced a second, $66 billion stimulus measure, in a desperate attempt to keep the economy afloat and offer extra financial support to those already receiving social security benefits and those now trying to sign up.

A coronavirus supplement of $550 a fortnight will be added to the Jobseeker payment – known as Newstart until last Friday – and access to the dole will be relaxed and waiting period waived to allow casuals and sole traders whose income drops off.

The government will make a second $750 payment to pensioners and welfare recipients in July, on top of the cash handout already flagged to hit bank accounts at the end of March.

People will also be allowed to access up to $20,000 of their superannuation savings, in two payments, if they declare to the tax office their work hours or income has fallen by 20 per cent because of the virus.

The government is already flagging a third round of stimulus spending.

“We will be supercharging our safety net, we’ll be supporting the most vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis, those who will feel those first blows,” Scott Morrison said on Sunday.

“(We will) preserve the businesses that comprise our economy so on the other side they can bounce back strongly and don’t have to reassemble themselves from the ruins of failed businesses.”

Sunday’s package includes a significant expansion of the wage-based cash payments to small businesses already announced – measures Labor has flagged as supporting when parliament sits on Monday.

Small and medium businesses and not-for-profits that employ people will now receive a full rebate on income tax withholdings, up to $100,000.

They’ll all get a minimum of $20,000 – 10 times the amount announced previously.

This is expected to help some 690,000 businesses employing about 7.8 million people, along with 30,000 not-for-profits who weren’t previously set to receive the cash flow injection.

– with AAP

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