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 Treasury estimates an extra one million Australians may need government payments to get through the coronavirus crisis.
As the country's bars, cafes, clubs, pubs, schools and cinemas shut down to slow the spread of the virus, massive queues formed outside Centrelink offices as people were unable to make claims online or over the phone.
Mr Roberts 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 jobs 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.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told parliament Treasury had estimated that up to a million people could be accessing the new coronavirus supplement, in addition to those already receiving JobSeeker payments.
"That's a lot of people. But not every one of those people are actually out of a job and unemployed. It could mean that, if you are a sole trader whose income has reduced or if you're someone who's a casual who's had their hours reduced, you can still access this new coronavirus supplement without, effectively, being unemployed," Mr Frydenberg said.
There are about 16,000 people employed in cafes, restaurants, clubs, pubs and bars in Canberra, although the number includes workers in takeaways. Nationally, the sectors employ about 832,000 people.
But on Monday the myGov website was down and Centrelink phone lines were busy.
People instead lined up outside the door at the Centrelink branch in Braddon, as security guards in masks enforced social distancing inside. A young man in chef's pants said he'd been waiting around 40 minutes to get to the head of the outdoor queue, with a one-in, one-out policy in force.
Users like Drago Brozinic 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 did not give his last name, had tried to call six times in half an hour but the line dropped out each time.
Two young women in the queue were university students who had been fired from their casual hospitality jobs just two hours earlier. Another young man waiting was a casual teacher who had lost work due to schools closing down.
A 19-year-old woman emerged from the branch with tears in her eyes after being knocked back for youth allowance. She had been forced to move back to Canberra into her sister's place after being unable to afford her Sydney lease. She lost her job as an optical dispenser and her hours as a medical receptionist had been slashed.
"I applied at Coles but so has everyone else," she said.
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."
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