HM Passport Office (HMPO) processed record numbers of applications as demand rose amid the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions. But a combination of factors led to delays for hundreds of thousands of people, with disruption to travel plans for many as a result, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Despite HMPO planning ahead, recruitment challenges, limitations in its systems, and unsuccessful efforts to manage demand all contributed to longer than expected waits, the NAO found.

Nonetheless, from January to September 2022, HMPO processed 6.9 million passport applications, an increase of 21% compared with the same period in 2019.

The NAO found that HMPO is already actively engaged in learning the lessons from its experience, by improving contact with customers, building future capacity to better manage demand, and completing its digital transformation.

As the pandemic emerged and government implemented travel restrictions, significantly fewer people applied for and renewed passports. HMPO planned for an expected surge in passport applications ahead of those restrictions being eased. Based on the missing demand from 2020 and 2021, HMPO prepared for 9.5 million applications in 2022 – 36% more than a normal year.1

As the Government removed COVID-19 travel restrictions, more than seven million people applied between January and September 2022, with almost half the applications received between March and May. In May alone, HMPO received more than 1.2 million applications, 38% more than the highest month in any of the previous five years. In its busiest week, HMPO received 340,000 applications.

Between January and September 2022, 95% of customers received their passports within ten weeks. However, around 360,000 experienced longer waits.

HMPO’s capacity to process applications within expected timeframes was affected by three interlinked areas. Firstly, limitations in processing applications digitally meant that more applications were required to be processed on paper. This resulted in 134,000 digital applications being moved to the less efficient, paper-based system.

Secondly, some suppliers failed to meet service levels as demand increased. In particular, media reports of delays pushed more people to call the telephone helpline for reassurance, placing greater pressure on services.

Thirdly, HMPO responded to customers’ concerns by prioritising passports for those with imminent travel and moving experienced staff to deal with customers rather than processing passports.

HMPO estimates at least three million passport applications are still expected from people who did not renew or apply during the pandemic. HMPO therefore expects that it could see a further 9.8 million applications in 2023.

The NAO urges HMPO to learn the lessons from this year’s experience so it is better prepared for higher-than-average demand expected in 2023. In particular, the NAO encourages HMPO to focus on improving how it manages customer expectations, improving its management information and working with the Home Office to develop a more flexible approach to managing higher demand for its services.

“HM Passport Office processed a record number of applications amid unprecedented demand. But limitations in its systems, coupled with difficulties in keeping up with higher-than-average numbers 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.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Investigation into the performance of HM Passport Office

Notes for editors

  1. In May 2021, with international travel restrictions still in place, HMPO realised expected demand for 2021 would not materialise and started to plan for demand returning in 2022. In August 2021, its forecast suggested that it could receive 9.5 million passport applications in 2022 – 36% more than a normal year. It based this forecast on historical data (which suggested there may be up to five million customers who did not apply for passports in 2020 and 2021) and surveys designed to understand people’s travel intentions. Its analysis demonstrated that at peak times it could receive 270,000 applications a week.
  2. 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.

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