By morning on Monday March 23, queues were snaking from Centrelink offices around the country. The night before, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had announced Australia's toughest COVID-19 restrictions yet.
As restaurants, cafes and other businesses found themselves with no choice but to lay off staff under the tightened rules, thousands of workers turned to welfare.
The agency in charge of the nation's social safety net, Services Australia, was hit with an overwhelming spike in demand. Soon, it needed help.
Hundreds of public servants were redeployed to the agency in April, bolstering the ranks of staff delivering the federal government's response to the economic shock of COVID-19.
Among them were the very newest members of the Australian Public Service.
More than 100 graduates were redeployed after volunteering to help Services Australia. They are among the youngest of the 1800 public servants seconded in a mobilisation of the APS workforce that has helped the agency process a million welfare claims in six weeks.
The graduates were about two months into their new careers, many having just moved to Canberra, and some joining the federal public service straight from university.
Answering the call
Defence Department graduate Sebastian Ward quickly replied to an email calling for volunteers to redeploy.
"For me it was just a moment where I could sit there and go, 'well either I can continue doing what I'm doing, or if one day it comes along, and someone asks what I did during this, because at the time we also didn't know how bad this was going to get, I could at least say I tried something'," he said.
Other graduates also considered the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet graduate Nechama Basserabie had been working from home when she received a call saying she would be redeployed. The next day she was at the Enid Lyons Building in Tuggeranong for training.
"I just really want to be where I'm useful. If I work in government I want to be able to look back on coronavirus and be like, 'I was doing the most helpful thing I could have done at the time'," she said.
Graduates were redeployed from more than 10 agencies and departments across the bureaucracy. The first of their rotations was cut short. Among their new tasks were processing JobSeeker claims and assisting people applying for welfare.
There are times that you feel, I wish I could have fit one more claim in.Yan Kok, DFAT graduate
They arrived to an organised, well-oiled operation in Tuggeranong.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade graduate Yan Kok said IT was ready and support was on hand. Services Australia staff would go out of their way to help. Graduates found the transition from their old jobs seamless.
"The fact they were onboarding a couple of hundred people every day and they managed to set everybody up was amazing," Ms Kok said.
The training for redeployed staff was condensed into days. In less pressing situations, it might have been delivered more slowly.
Defence graduate Mr Ward said there was a lot to take in at first, but the new skills soon clicked.
"It was a lot like drinking from a fire hose. It was a lot of information in a very short amount of time, but once we sat down and started working, it all fell into place."
Power in numbers
The graduates quickly learnt where they fit inside the rapidly-assembled public service machine responding to the influx of welfare claims.
They first hit the phones, helping people set up myGov and other online accounts. Later, they began processing straightforward claims, freeing up Services Australia staff to deal with more complex tasks.
"We're here to make their lives easier too, because Centrelink staff have been working overtime for a very long time now, because they have to do the new JobSeeker claims on top of all the other normal claims that people might still make, and can still make," Ms Kok said.
She expected some of the clients might sometimes be angry or frustrated at delays. Instead, she was overwhelmed with their generosity and patience.
"Every single person I called, they were so appreciative and so kind. I actually felt a bit bad because they were turning around and saying to me 'thank you for working so hard through this time and it must be really tough on you too'," she said.
"The compassion that came from this person who clearly has it a lot worse than me was really humbling and it was something I didn't expect."
Such conversations have spurred the graduates to try fitting in more claims each day.
"I just want somebody else to be able to go to get that message notification that their claim's been approved, and they can at least not have to worry about rent or food," Ms Kok said.
"There are times that you feel 'I wish I could have fit one more claim in'."
The experience has at times left her overwhelmed at the volume of claims to process, but she has found a reason for consolation.
"We have so many colleagues, because it's not just the people in the building who are processing claims, there are Services Australia staff all around the country that are doing this," she said.
"They're still onboarding more APS staff and you feel really comforted by the sheer power of numbers."
Processing a claim is far from the repetitive, formulaic work it might sound. To Prime Minister's Department graduate Ms Basserabie, assessing someone's application for welfare is a "very human exercise".
"Often there will be details in their claim you need to clarify and you have to ring them up and then you have an interaction with them," she said.
"Today I was on the phone to someone and I could hear her kids going crazy in the background, and her dog, and once you have that kind of interaction you're kind of like 'OK, I'm going to finish this claim today'."
A kind of perfectionism comes into the task for redeployed staff.
"You feel really committed to doing it properly and you basically spend the whole day doing claims and I feel like each day I get a little bit more confident, dealing with more complicated things in the system," Ms Basserabie said.
A nimble juggernaut
The newly assembled teams in Tuggeranong come from all corners of the public service, mixing senior bureaucrats with graduates. DFAT graduate Will Paparo said the atmosphere was one of close camaraderie.
"There are people from at least a few dozen different APS agencies, and just being able to meet new people from across the APS that you may not have interacted with on any given day in your normal job has also been fantastic," he said.
Defence graduate Holly White said she was learning about different agencies and departments during chats with her new colleagues.
"It's given me a lot more of a rounded view of the APS as a whole," she said.
Defence Department first assistant secretary Pat Hetherington, seconded to Services Australia to assist with mobilising the workforce in response to COVID-19, said the new connections would benefit graduates.
"I can't actually think of too many better ways for our graduates to start their public service careers," he said.
"Relationships across the public service are important, and I think these guys have the opportunity to build those relationships right from the outset of their public service careers in the environment that they're in."
The public service's newest employees share with their older counterparts an awe at its newfound ability to mobilise hundreds of staff in a matter of weeks.
The APS was typically considered a slow-moving juggernaut, but had proven to be otherwise, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet graduate Jack Thompson said.
"It's not only the agility of the APS but the agility of the people in it," he said.
"You've got people from all different levels, people quite senior directing teams, who have now gone into being directed for a temporary period, and they accept it without any thought because their mind is just turned to how they can help out, really."
Public service commission graduate Tay Zastrow described it as like being in a "pop up department".
"It was incredible how quickly everything happened, and how willing people were to take on new positions," she said.
Mr Hetherington can't recall a time before when the public service had mobilised on such a scale. The redeployment was no simple operation.
"It's easy to say 'all of these staff have moved', but to move people you've got to identify them, you've got to bring them into a new organisation and you've got to onboard them into that organisation, you've got to deliver training, so there's a big logistical, administrative effort to do that," he said.
Shaping the future
Graduates redeployed to the COVID-19 effort remain employees of the agencies and departments they joined earlier this year. They'll eventually return from Services Australia, but at this stage, they don't know when.
APS commission group manager Jacquie Walton said the agency would learn from Ms Zastrow's experiences when she returned.
The graduate's time working directly with Australians accessing government services would help later in her career, when she considered how policy affected people.
"It'll give her a very different lens to look at things through," Ms Walton said.
It feels to Ms Basserabie almost like there was never a time when coronavirus wasn't around. The events of the last two months haven't left her much time to reflect on the rapid change.
"Often you're just in the thick of claims, just doing them, but if I reflect on this it will probably really kind of concretise my desire to be in the APS for a long time," she said.
"I think a lot of people would probably come out of this having a similar positive feel about it."