In addition to closed borders and quarantine periods, another hurdle has emerged that could prevent Britons travelling abroad this year.
Fears have been raised that if travel restrictions are lifted in the summer or early autumn, then millions may not be able to travel due to a backlog of expired passports. The Passport Office, which usually issues more than five million passports a year, shut up shop when the lockdown was enforced on March 24 and has only been operating in a limited capacity since.
On the Home Office website, the current advice for those seeking a renewal plainly states: “Do not apply unless you need a passport urgently for compassionate reasons, for example if a family member has died, or for government business”.
It has been estimated that approximately 500,000 passports expire each month, meaning that there could already be more than a million people in need of a new one.
While there is certainly no guarantee that holidays abroad will start up anytime soon, the continued twists and turns of the pandemic mean that if restrictions are lifted without much notice, then many could be caught out. The backlog could affect families disproportionately as passports for those under 16 only last for five years as opposed to the standard 10 for adults. There is no quick fix either as the Government’s pricey Premium and Fast Track services, which usually turn round passports in one day and one week respectively, have been suspended. It is unclear when they will be reinstated.
In a statement to The Telegraph, a Home Office spokesperson insisted: “Her Majesty’s Passport Office is continuing to process standard passport applications, but they are taking longer than usual as a result of changed working practices designed to keep both staff and customers safe.
“We are prioritising those who need our services most, especially applications for compassionate reasons. We would encourage those who can to apply at a later date.”
No timeframe has been given to those who have applied for passports during lockdown. However the Government says it is hoping to publish turnaround times “as soon as we can”. Pre-pandemic, the standard time taken to issue a passport was three weeks.
No doubt sensing the impending backlog, the Passport Office, which has centres in London, Liverpool, Peterborough, Durham, Newport, Glasgow and Belfast, did recall some staff to work in the middle of April, but faced a backlash from the Public and Commercial Services Union. At the time, its general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "It is absolutely scandalous that HMPO are suggesting our members can go back into work during a pandemic to process routine passports”.
The Home Office countered that the office “continues to operate at substantially restricted staffing levels with a significant number of people working from home where possible, and staff are prioritising emergency cases” and confirmed that social distancing measures were in place.
Anyone who does manage to get a new passport during lockdown is likely to receive a burgundy-coloured booklet as the rollout of the new blue ones has been delayed by the coronavirus crisis.