Queues form outside Mandurah Centrelink as myGov crashes due to demand

Lines outside the Centrelink Mandurah office on Monday.
Lines outside the Centrelink Mandurah office on Monday.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has walked away from earlier claims that the Australian government's myGov website was hit with a cyber attack on Monday morning.

As the country's bars, cafes, clubs, pubs, schools and cinemas shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, massive queues formed outside Centrelink offices as people were unable to make claims online or over the phone.

Mr Robert initially said myGov - the website where people can make a claim for unemployment benefits and access other government services - had been overwhelmed by a "significant" distributed denial of service attack.

But later during question time, he admitted the website had crashed due to demand.

"Advice to me this morning was myGov attracted 95,000 concurrent users at 9.40am that triggered the DDOS [distributed denial of service attack] alarms ... and slowed the system," he said.

"The system had been designed for 55,000 concurrent users so was overloaded. Our systems have had multiple and sustained DDOS attacks over the past few weeks. The network alert status is now at high.

"This combined with the 95,000 users gave rise to a very strained performance because of the high numbers of usage that caused the outage. The DDOS alarms showed no evidence of a specific attack today - the advice here doesn't mean there is no need for heightened cyber security."

Services Australia had been preparing for an "influx" of new myGov users, as thousands of people lost their job due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday that JobSeeker payments, formerly known as Newstart, would be doubled to $1100 a fortnight, and the assets test and waiting period waived in order to help people access payments faster.

But on Monday the website was down and phone lines were busy.

People instead lined up outside the door at the Centrelink branch in Mandurah.

Users like Jayden, who did not give his last name, reported being cut off while in the phone queue and having to call back multiple times. He has been waiting for a senior's healthcare card for three months and has submitted the same paperwork several times. Others like Brian, who also did not give his last name, had tried to call six times in half an hour but the line dropped out each time.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told Senate question time Services Australia received 25,000 calls in the first 30 minutes of operation on Monday. It would normally receive 2000 calls.

Mr Robert said the number of users that could be on myGov at one time had already been increased nearly tenfold since Friday, from 6000 users at once to 55,000 users.

That number would likely increase again, as the government braces for further layoffs.

And while Services Australia will hire an extra 5000 staff to help deal with the influx, there will be fewer front-line staff in Centrelink branches across the country.

"The are fewer people at shopfronts because of the advice from the chief medical officer on social distancing and isolation. Those people are redeployed in the network in terms of phones and processes," Mr Robert said.

A spokesman for Mr Robert refused to say when the extra staff would be hired, but that they would be recruited through a mix of temporary and non-ongoing positions at Services Australia as well as through existing labour hire arrangements.

The extra staff would work in call centres and in claims processing, the spokesman said.

From Monday, customers will no longer have to attend a Centrelink branch in person to receive a customer reference number, and will be able to apply for one online.

People can also lodge an "intent to claim" from Monday, meaning their claim will be backdated.

"I'd say to all Australians if you intend to claim for a JobSeeker [payment] there is no need to line up [at] Centrelink now or indeed to jump on the phone from tomorrow. On myGov you'll be able to lodge your intent to claim from today," Mr Robert said.

The call centre operating hours will also be extended from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday, and 9am to 5pm on weekends.

However Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly said the government had failed to anticipate the pressure on Centrelink staff.

The union called on government to backdate payments to the date when workers lost their job or shifts.

"There is no doubt Services Australia is understaffed and overworked at the best of times," Ms Donnelly said

"Under normal circumstances as many as 55 million calls to Services Australia go unanswered every year. This is a direct result of staff cuts and increased outsourcing of essential services.

"It is critical that the government monitor demand and increase upon the 5000 if and when needed."

  • For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
  • You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
  • If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)