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Govt's Centrelink apology after "maybe a million" left jobless

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Thousands of people have again formed long queues outside Centrelink offices around the country, after Monday’s coronavirus-prompted shutdown of pubs, restaurants and arts and events-based and other businesses left the government grappling with just how many hundreds of thousands of workers might now be jobless.

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The government today urged people wanting Centrelink services to avoid queueing and go online, despite the MyGov website crashing yesterday after unprecedented demand.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert initially blamed the collapse on denial of service hacking, but later admitted the portal shut down after it was overwhelmed by masses of people now out of a job going online.

“I probably should have waited for the investigation before jumping the gun,” he told 2GB radio on Tuesday.

“We prepared over the weekend for 55,000 … I didn’t think I’d have to prepare for 100,000 concurrent users.

“My bad not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight.”

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston apologised for the website collapse, queues and confusion, but said no one could have predicted the spike in the level of demand – even though the government shut down a number of industries.

“I don’t think that anybody expected or could have prepared for … such an accelerated demand that came yesterday,” she told Nine’s Today show on Tuesday.

“We clearly understand the distress that this coronavirus is causing.”

The government is now appealing to people trying to register with Centrelink to hold off for a few days.

“We are asking for patience and calm … what we saw yesterday was heartbreaking,” Ruston said.

She said said unless people had no phone or internet access, there was no need for them to line up at Centrelink offices.

Centrelink will boost its workforce by 5000 people to deal with the influx of applicants and extend call centre hours.

But there will be fewer workers at the centres because of social distancing requirements. No pop-up shopfronts are planned.

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

Labor is demanding a dedicated Centrelink hotline be established to help people navigate the welfare system.

Labor social services spokeswoman Linda Burney urged the government to set up a single phone number so people can get answers from Centrelink.

“They are scared, they are confused and they are stressed because of drastic changes to their financial situation,” she told ABC radio.

“What they want is care, what they want is answers, what they want is urgency.

“Get the payments out, cut the red tape and worry about the paperwork later. People need help now.”

-with AAP

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