Couriers lost hundreds of passports over the pandemic despite millions fewer being issued as lockdown closed down international travel, new figures have revealed.
The waiting time for an adult passport renewal has risen to ten weeks, and with warnings this target is regularly being missed, families face missing out on summer breaks abroad with documents not returned in time.
The chaos has triggered questions in parliament and a pledge from the Passport Office to hire 700 new staff.
Now figures revealed in the Daily Mirror after a freedom of information request show that although the number of passports sent out by the government department fell in 2020 and 2021, more of them were lost en route.
In 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic closed down international travel, approximately 6.7 million passports were issued each year. Of those, 422 and 437 passports and supporting documents were lost during delivery.
In 2020, with borders closed and people forced to stay at home, the number issued shrank to 3.9 million – but 519 were lost.
In the first six months of 2021, the only months for which data is available, 4.8 million passports were dispatched. Of these, 1,196 passports or supporting documents were reported lost.
This means that in the first half of 2021, couriers for HM Passport Office lost more crucial documents than in the two years before the pandemic.
Mike Clancy, general secretary of the Prospect union, told the Daily Mirror: “Lack of government investment has already caused passport chaos, with many families facing huge uncertainty about whether they will get away for a break this summer.
“Now we find out that the privatised delivery service is losing passports at a record rate too.
“It’s time for the government to actually invest in public servants rather than threatening massive, damaging cuts to the civil service.”
‘Just 0.04% lost’
A Passport Office spokesman told the Mirror: “Between January 1 and July 31 2021 HM Passport Office sent over 3.3 million items to its customers.
“While regrettable, less than 0.04% of those were reported as having been lost during delivery, and many of those items have been subsequently recovered.
“The safety of our customers’ personal data is of paramount importance and every attempt is made to recover lost or mis-delivered documents.
“Once reported, passports are cancelled on the system immediately in order to mitigate against the risk of misuse and we continue to work with our delivery partner to develop measures to reduce the number of losses overall.”
Working from home blamed for delay
Ministers have publicly blamed large-scale home working for the backlogs at the Passport Office.
Boris Johnson issued a renewed call for a return to the office after the pandemic, saying staff were “more productive, more energetic, more full of ideas” when they are in the workplace alongside their colleagues.
Last week, Labour MP Barry Gardiner said delays in the Passport Office are “absolutely unacceptable” as he told the Commons about an elderly couple in his constituency who ended up missing a niece’s wedding and a sister’s funeral.
He said: “I have an elderly couple who applied before the new year, back in December. They applied before Christmas.
“They were told that their passport was ready on January 24 but they had to send the old passport back in order to get it.
“By the end of March, they still hadn’t had it, by which time they had missed a niece’s wedding and then, sadly, a sister’s funeral.
“It was only after multiple interventions that we eventually got that passport sorted at the end of last month. This is unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable.”
Another Conservative MP said a member of his casework team spent “nine hours” on the phone to the agency and “did not manage to get through”.
The government expects 9.5 million British passport applications to be handled this year.