When Angie Tindle applied for her son’s passport in March she did not imagine that three months later she would be setting off with her husband on a 754-mile round trip to Scotland in a fraught attempt to save their family summer holiday in Spain.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Tindle is one of more than 14,000 members of the Facebook group passport chaos 2022, where people share daily updates, or lack of, on anguished waits for a document that holds the key to a longed-for summer break or post-Covid family reunion.
“My husband and I drove the 377 miles to Glasgow, stayed in a cheap hotel and got up at 5am to join the queue at Glasgow passport office,” says Tindle, adding that her calls and emails over several months had gone unanswered, resulting in “sleepless nights, stress and tears”.
With just over a fortnight to go until their flight – a trip that would, along with many British families, be their first abroad in three years – Tindle was determined to make it happen. Despite applying for her two sons’ passports at the same time, using the same countersignatory, it was queried on her seven-year-old’s application but not her baby’s first passport, which she had been able to collect from the Peterborough office the previous week.
After finding out her eldest son’s passport was in Glasgow, she and her husband set off for Scotland last Sunday, despite the official guidance that “face-to-face passport services are only available by appointment”. Tindle was determined not to take no for an answer, although initially that was what she was told by “super lovely” officials who were prioritising people in the queue whose trips were more imminent.
“They started to say that as it wasn’t 48 hours before travel we wouldn’t get the passport that day and I was beside myself,” she says. But her emotional account of the 14-week wait swayed a manager to intervene and by lunchtime they had the prized document and were back on the road, driving six hours home to Northamptonshire.
The daily feed of worry and disappointment on groups such as passport chaos 2022 and passport appointment help, which has almost 26,000 members, is usually interspersed with a picture of someone grinning from ear to ear or a disembodied hand clutching the blue passport many never knew they wanted so much – and announcing happily they are leaving the group.
As a parting gift, they share the phone numbers, emails and offices that helped them to penetrate the bureaucracy of a Passport Office that has been dealing with unprecedented demand after millions of people put off their applications during the pandemic.
However, as the school holidays get under way, time is of the essence. Some members of the groups have thrown in the towel and accepted their holidays are off, while others are making last-ditch trips, as Tindle did, to beg for help at passport offices around the country – or booking dummy flights to get the attention of officials.
Annabel Cook is one of them. She booked a £9 flight to Milan for only her teenage daughter this week because she feared their family holiday in Cyprus, delayed from 2020, was in jeopardy. Although she applied for her two children’s passports at the same time in April, only one had come back and she would be unable to recover the £5,000 cost of the rearranged holiday as her travel insurance would not pay out in the circumstances.
“I sent off two passports, both at the same time,” she says. “One came back within three weeks and the other one just seemed to get stuck.” She filled in the online form multiple times to get information about the application and on hearing nothing back became increasingly fraught as her 18-year-old couldn’t even prove her right to work in the UK without the old passport, which had been sent in.
“I contacted the Passport Office and was told I could pay extra to get the passport fast-tracked after six weeks,” Cook says. “However, to my surprise, they were taking their timeline from when they say the old passport arrived, on 11 May – although it was delivered on 22 April. I waited and rang back. After an hour and a half on hold I was told the 10 weeks started on 25 May, the date they started processing it. I was given an email address, which I sent the appropriate details to, but I got no response.”
“It’s just a nightmare,” she says. “Anytime you do actually speak to someone, they give you different information. It was just going on and on and on. One said: ‘You’re not in the category of urgent’ even though we’d exceeded the 10 weeks … so I just thought, well, what is going to make me urgent?
“It was 2am and I thought ‘I’m going to find a flight that doesn’t cost me the earth because it will be cheaper than losing our holiday.’”
Cook called the Passport Office the next day with the Milan flight details and had a breakthrough as the official she spoke to referred the application for an urgent phone call. By midweek her daughter’s passport had arrived.
Last month, Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, offered little hope that the passport turnaround would shrink back from 10 weeks to the three weeks enjoyed before the pandemic, as he was anticipating another wave of applications.
“We’re on track for 9.5m [passports] this year compared with a normal year of 7m,” he told MPs on the home affairs committee. “So there is still more to come out of the system and it would be wrong to go back to anything less than 10 weeks at this stage.”
Passport applications have soared, with overseas travel resuming after the hiatus caused by the pandemic. In a normal year there are 7m applications but in 2020 and 2021 the number of applications dropped to 4m and 5m respectively.
While the social media feeds filled with talestelling of cancelled holidays suggest otherwise, the Passport Office says that between March and May 98.5% of applications were completed within 10 weeks. An expedited service is available at no additional cost to people whose applications take longer than 10 weeks, it says, and those who need help should call the passport advice line on 0300 222 0000.
If you have not started the application process, a more expensive one-week fast-track service is available. It costs £142 for an adult passport, compared with £75.50 for a standard online application.
With officials currently processing 250,000 applications a week, extra staff have been drafted in to help with the push. The Passport Office says it has hired an extra 850 staff since last April and another 350 are being recruited. There are more than 4,000 staff in passport production roles, it adds.
A number of EU nationals who have been granted British citizenship after Brexit have also contacted Guardian Money to report long waits for their first UK passports – and because the process involves sending in their original passport, they are concerned at having being left in limbo without their official ID.
Maria, a London-based translator from Italy, applied for her first British passport in April after receiving her naturalisation certificate in November 2021. “I thought it would be easier to get a British passport considering Brexit and everything. I know on paper that I’m a British citizen but I thought if I have the passport, I have that extra document.”
However, after 13 weeks and two missed trips that should have been possible based on the 10-week guidance, in desperation she sought the return of her Italian passport. “I have called the dedicated helpline at least 20 times over the last three weeks trying to explain my situation and get advice, and it was, in most cases, a machine replying, and a long waiting time, on average more than an hour per call,” she says.
“When you get in touch with an actual person, they either transfer you to the customer management team, which turns out to be a registered voice saying they’re very busy, or an adviser that gives you contradictory information.”
She has since been told her British passport has been printed and her Italian one is in the post – but neither is in her hands yet. “At this point in time I just would like to have my Italian passport back,” she says. “My main concern at the moment is the fact that I am a European citizen in a non-EU country with no valid ID.”
A spokesperson for the Passport Office says: “Since April 2021, we’ve clearly stated that people should allow up to 10 weeks when applying for their passport to factor in the increased demand, which has seen 5 million people delay their passport application due to the pandemic. Face-to-face passport services are only available by appointment.”
Twitter bot could help
If you have not applied for your passport yet and are willing to pay more for the fast-track or premium application, which for adults cost £142 and £177 respectively, one thing can still stand in your way: getting one of the appointments when they are released, without spending hours refreshing your computer screen.
However, Dr Michael Hodge, a data scientist, has created a Twitter bot that tweets from @ukpassportcheck when new appointments are available. He initially made it to help his mother after she found her passport was too close to its expiry date before a big family holiday in the Algarve, and then decided to share it for free with others.