The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)1 has been processing standard driving licences at normal levels following the backlog that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are still delays in applications from drivers with medical conditions, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The DVLA process applications for two main types of licences, ordinary and vocational licences. Around 4% of the 16.6 million driver-related transactions DVLA processed in 2021-22 related to applications from drivers with a medical condition that might affect their ability to drive safely.

The DVLA continued to process most online licence applications within expected timeframes. Ordinary driving licence applications make up the majority (96%) of online applications and the DVLA has met its aim of processing 95% of these online driving licence applications within three working days of receipt since April 2020 in all but one month, May 2021.

However, since March 2020, the DVLA has been less able to process paper-based driving licence applications resulting in longer than normal processing times and a backlog of applications, which peaked at 1.1 million in September 2021. Of the 24.3 million applications DVLA processed between April 2020 and September 2022, 3.3 million took longer than normal.

Applications from drivers with medical conditions, which are predominantly paper-based, are still taking longer to process than expected and a backlog of these applications remains. The DVLA normally expects to make 90% of medical licensing decisions within 90 working days but suspended this target from April 2020. Difficulties in obtaining medical information from GPs and other medical professionals, that the DVLA needs to make a licencing decision, contributed to the delays.

In February 2022 the DVLA had 333,000 medical licensing applications in progress, three times the average number of these applications in progress during 2019-20. Since February 2022, the DVLA has cleared on average 17,700 more cases per month than it has received. By September 2022 the DVLA had managed to reduce this to around 207,000 applications in progress, 100,000 more than the normal number of applications in progress.

The DVLA’s ability to process paper-based applications was reduced from April 2020 when fewer staff were able to work at the DVLA’s Swansea site and employees were unable to work on these applications from home. In the three months following the introduction of national lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions, around half of the DVLA’s workforce of more than 6,000 people was placed on paid special leave. Between March 2020 and June 2020, the number of staff working on site reduced from around 3,300 to around 1,000 at any one time.  By the end of 2020 around 2,000 staff were able to work from home, but this did not include staff working on paper-based licence applications, or processing customers’ medical information because of high data security risks and logistical challenges.

Enquiries from customers about their driving licence applications increased sevenfold during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a high number went unanswered. Calls to the DVLA’s contact centre relating to driving licences increased from around 442,000 per month prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, to a high of 5.7 million per month in June 2021. While the number of enquiries increased, the DVLA’s capacity to respond diminished. This led to a large number of unanswered calls, peaking at 5.6 million in the month of June 20212. The number of customer complaints to the DVLA also increased during the pandemic, from around 4,300 in 2019-20 to more than 31,900 in 2021-22.

The DVLA took a number of steps to reduce the volume of applications it was receiving and at the same time to increase the ability of its staff to work on-site to process paper-based licence applications3. This included changing the law to automatically extend all driving licences for 11 months and to enable vocational licence holders who were unable to arrange a medical examination, which they must do every five years from the age of 45, to obtain a one-year licence. The DVLA has also spent £24 million to date and forecasts it will spend a further £10 million on preparing and renting two new offices, recruiting 362 additional full-time equivalent staff, and making overtime payments to staff.

The DVLA is continuing to work towards making more of its licensing services available online within the next three to five years, in part to reduce the use of paper-based processes. It brought forward several changes from its digital change programme4, including a new online service for provisional driving licence applications, which it estimates reduced paper applications by around 20,000 per month.

“The DVLA was not able to process paper-based licence applications while COVID-19 restrictions prevented many of its staff from being on its site, resulting in a backlog of work. Most licences are now being processed within expected times, but drivers with medical conditions continue to wait longer than normal. While the DVLA’s digital strategy aims to make the application process more efficient, the full benefits of this remain 3 to 5 years away.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Investigation into the management of backlogs in driving licence applications 

Notes for editors

  1. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Transport, maintains around 50 million driver records in Great Britain and 40 million vehicle records in the UK. It also collects Vehicle Excise Duty on behalf of HM Treasury. Of 135 million customer transactions DVLA completed in 2021-22, 17 million (12%) related to drivers, and 119 million (88%) related to vehicles.
  2. The number of unanswered calls in June 2021 was higher than the number of individual customers whose calls were not answered, as some customers made multiple attempts to call.
  3. The DVLA returned to processing standard driving licence applications within usual time limits by May 2022 and reduced the number in progress to typical levels by July 2022.
  4. In 2019, DVLA began a digital change programme, ‘Evolve’. It aims to make existing online services for drivers more efficient and easier for customers to use, as well as reducing the use of paper-based processes. In response to the backlogs, DVLA brought forward several changes from its digital change programme, including the introduction in July 2021 of a new online service for provisional driving licence applications, which it estimates has reduced paper applications by around 20,000 per month.
  5. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.


The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.


In 2021, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £874 million.

Latest press releases