I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 11 together.
The SAFE registration process, which involves the authentication of a person's identity in a face-to-face interview, is the normal method of processing an application for a personal public service number, PPSN.
At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, my Department temporarily suspended the SAFE registration process. This decision was taken in order to comply with HSE and World Health Organization public health guidelines. Although this suspension was lifted in June when restrictions eased, the throughput in terms of processing applications was lower than normal due to the need to limit footfall into our offices in line with social distancing requirements. In order to deal with these constraints and as an exceptional measure, my Department introduced an email and postal service through which PPSN applications could be made. By its nature this temporary service is not as efficient as the face-to-face process it has replaced. For example, any issues which arise regarding supporting documentation take longer to resolve than would be the case in a face-to-face environment. In addition, delays in issuing PPS numbers arose as staff in my Department were reassigned to deal with a huge increase in claim processing work arising as a consequence of the pandemic. In this context, it was necessary, as I am sure the Deputies will understand, to prioritise getting people into payment above all other activities.
I am very conscious of the impact of the measures we had to take on issuing PPS numbers and my Department has liaised with other public bodies, employers and other agencies to deal with urgent cases as quickly as possible. Since the introduction of this temporary service, my Department has allocated almost 34,000 PPS numbers and is currently dealing with approximately just over 22,000 applications, most of which are now being processed.
In recent weeks, my Department has reassigned resources to deal with these applications. This will result in improved processing times and will substantially further reduce the number of applications on hand over the next few weeks. In addition, as level 5 restrictions are lifted, my Department is now resuming SAFE registrations for PPSN applicants.
As public representatives, we engage with staff of the Department at local level through our constituency offices and many Members of the House will agree when I acknowledge the monumental effort that the staff have put in this year, at a time of national crisis, to ensure that payments were issued to those who needed it. Since March, staff have processed 1.5 million claims, issued 13 million payments to 800,000 people and processed the equivalent of seven years' worth of jobseeker's applications in eight months. On top of that, we issued €130 million in arrears to 286,000 people this year. Next week, we will pay €389 million on the Christmas bonus. I pay tribute to the staff and I know that the Deputies here will agree when I say that the staff of the Department of Social Protection were front-line workers. They provided the absolutely essential supports that people across the country needed. I acknowledge that. It is sometimes easy to forget that the Department and the staff have managed to do that on top of their normal, day-to-day work processing pensions, disability payments and carer's allowance. It is sometimes easy to take for granted that things will run smoothly and payments will be there every week but much work goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. It has been a monumental effort, across the board, by staff in every county to keep the show on the road this year. It is important that we acknowledge the effort, the huge amount of hours, overtime and weekend work they have done to make sure that everybody got their payments as quickly and efficiently as possible.