I propose to take Questions Nos. 19, 23, 26, 31 and 38 together.
Once the potential impact of Covid-19 became obvious, contingency planning commenced to minimise the impact of restrictions on the delivery of passport services. In particular, plans were put in place to ensure that we continued to provide an emergency service for the issuance of passports in cases of serious illness or death abroad. The Passport Service also assisted those whose applications were regarded as urgent. While staff were on site during the pandemic, carrying out this necessary work, they also produced approximately 6,000 additional passports. The additional passports were adult passport renewal applications received online which required minimum staff intervention.
Personnel from the Passport Office were also redeployed into other essential public service roles, such as Covid-19 contact tracing for the HSE and working with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to facilitate the processing of Covid-related benefits.
The Passport Office has now started a phased return to full operation. This planning is in line with the wider Government plan to reopen in phases. The Passport Service resumed processing of non-essential online applications this week (in Phase 2 of the Government roadmap). The Passport Service has a great deal of experience in dealing with peaks in demand, and we believe that we are well-placed to ensure the online service will be meeting its usual turnaround times of approximately two weeks by phase 3 in July.
The Passport Online service has won awards for its user-friendly process, including a NALA award for the use of plain English. If an applicant is not familiar with using a computer, a friend or relative with basic computer skills can help them to apply online – the process only takes ten minutes to complete. Passport Online can also facilitate social distancing, given that a renewal application for an adult does not require the signature of a witness.
Passport Online expanded in 2019 to include first time applicants, both children and adults, in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Europe. Irish citizens, including children, can also renew their passports online 24/7, from anywhere in the world.