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Centrelink swamped as system crashes amid scramble for benefits


Thousands of Australians have queued around Centrelink offices across the country and the online portal for government services has crashed as people scramble to apply for benefits amid the coronavirus pandemic.



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The confusion came as Queenslanders are being urged not to leave their suburb or town as more businesses shut down and panicked parents look to schools to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert claims hackers are responsible for crashing the MyGov website.

Mr Robert said the site could only handle 55,000 users at one time, insisting it was fine despite people being unable to access it.

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

Read: 6.5 million reasons why confusion is set to reign at Centrelink

“At present there are delays, we don’t give a running commentary on delays.”

Mr Robert has urged people to go online to start their claims.

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 staff in offices due to social distancing requirements and no pop-up shopfronts are planned.

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

The opposition is sceptical about Mr Robert’s claims the system was hacked.

“No one believes this,” Labor MP Tim Watts tweeted on Monday.

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

Mr 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.

Right across the country, there are long queues snaking around blocks outside Centrelink offices.

First-time welfare recipients have been told they can only get a customer reference number by applying in person.

Mr Shorten said the minister must do better.

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

The official response to the pandemic is as fast-moving and unpredictable as the virus itself, with health and political advisers facing a day-by-day challenge in responding to the crisis. In Queensland, there are now 319 cases of COVID-19, up 60 from Sunday’s tally – the largest single-day increase in the state so far.

Yesterday, a $66 billion rescue package announced by the Federal Government was overshadowed by last night’s announcement of widespread closures and confusion over differing state policies on schools.

Since midday today, pubs and clubs, gyms, cinemas, indoor sporting venues and indoor entertainment venues have been closed, while cafes and restaurants can only offer takeaway or home delivery.

Some borders have already closed to protect remote, indigenous communities and there may be further restrictions placed on domestic flights and public transport services to prevent sick people spreading the disease.

“Stay in your state and stay in your suburb,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk warned today, echoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for people to stop being ignorant about the risks and accept social isolation.

Health officials will this week discuss whether workers in certain sectors are at such an increased risk of coronavirus that governments should shut down their workplaces too.

There is growing disquiet among parents and even teachers over the situation in schools, which officially, at least, remain open across Australia. While some schools interstate have brought the term to an end, days early, and NSW is urging parents to keep kids home if possible, in Queensland the state system still has two weeks left and Education Minister Grace Grace today said schools would stay open until April 3. The Queensland Teachers’ Union has declared this position unacceptable – and has not ruled out strike action to force school closures.

Grace and Palaszczuk reiterated the position reached by national Cabinet, that parents who can care for their children and meet their education needs, while keeping them away from other people, may take them out of school. For everyone else, however, schools remain open – and may help stem the spread of disease elsewhere community.

Much depends on each school’s preparedness for online learning – for some students, staying home for six months may not even be an option – and whether they are also prematurely forced into lockdown. Some private schools are already favouring online options, while St Margaret’s Anglican Girls School in Brisbane is closed today after three parents tested positive to COVID-19 over the weekend.

Palaszczuk has Cabinet and budget meetings today and has foreshadowed Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad making an announcement tomorrow providing more relief for households.

-with Daniel McCullogh of AAP

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