Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by delays in processing passport applications and many had travel plans disrupted as a result this year, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.
HM Passport Office (HMPO) processed a record number of applications amid “unprecedented demand” as Covid travel restrictions were lifted but struggled to keep up with higher demand from customers, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
In the first nine months of this year, 95% of customers received their passports within 10 weeks but 360,000 people experienced longer waits.
The NAO urged the Home Office agency to learn from the chaos and prepare for similar levels of demand in 2023, when 10m applications could be made.
Problems with recruitment and limitations in its systems, as well as unsuccessful efforts to deal with the level of demand contributed to long waits, according to findings published on Friday.
During the pandemic, significantly fewer people applied for and renewed passports and officials planned for a sharp rise in applications when travel restrictions were lifted.
HMPO prepared for 9.5m applications in 2022 – 36% more than a normal year – based on the missing number of applications from the previous two years.
Between January and September, more than 7 million people applied and the Passport Office processed 6.9m applications, an increase of 21% compared with the same period in 2019.
In May, more than 1.2m applications were received, 38% more than the highest month in any of the previous five years. In the busiest week, 340,000 applications were submitted.
An estimated 3 million passport applications are expected from people who did not renew or apply during the pandemic, which means the Passport Office could receive another 9.8m applications in 2023, the report says.
The head of the NAO, Gareth Davies, said: “HM Passport Office processed a record number of applications amid unprecedented demand. But limitations in its systems, coupled with difficulties in keeping up with a higher than average number of customers contributed to delays for hundreds of thousands of people, creating anxiety for those with travel plans and hampering people’s ability to prove their identity.
“HMPO must now learn the lessons from this year and prepare for similar levels of demand that are expected in 2023.”
The department was already working to improve contact with customers and better deal with demand in future, the NAO added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The impact of Covid on passport services is not unique to the UK, with passport-issuing authorities across the world having reported challenges for their service.
“We recognise that a small percentage of British passport customers did not receive the service they should rightfully expect earlier this year. However, we have worked hard to rectify this, and have processed a record number of applications for a British passport in 2022, with over 95% being completed within 10 weeks.”