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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Morrison asks for patience as myGov tech is upgraded to handle new load

The Prime Minister said no system is built to deal with the circumstances and events that Australia is now facing as a nation.

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Screenshots: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday night asked the thousands of Australians now without a job to be patient in seeking assistance from the federal government.

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In the wake of COVID-19, social distancing measures and business closures have left many without a job. In response, the Australian government has announced over the past fortnight a handful of measures to support the newly unemployed as more than 1 million Australians could be forced onto welfare.

However, on Monday, thousands were unable to access the government's myGov online portal to sign up for income assistance.

"We are deeply sorry about this," Morrison said on Tuesday night.

"We've gone from 6,000 to 50,000 to 150,000 all in the space of, a matter of a day. And tonight, they're working to boost it again. I would say to Australians, yes, we are terribly sorry, but at the same time, we are asking Australians, even in these most difficult of circumstances, to be patient. Everyone is doing their best."

Morrison said what the world is dealing with is unprecedented and that no system was built to deal with the circumstances and events that everyone is now facing.

"I would urge people as difficult as it is, work with us. We are working to get this up as high and as far as we can, but we have had a multiple, many, many, many times over what is normally expected from this system -- and it was already upgraded and it's been upgraded again, and it will be upgraded again," he said.

With myGov falling over, many ignored social distancing rules by visiting Centrelink service centres. In response, Morrison urged people to stay home. He said opening hours for the call centres have been extended and that "no resource is being spared to ensure that we can get these systems in place".

"Queues around the nation, crashing websites, and so-called phone 'help lines' that are understaffed and with hours-long waiting times are not good enough," former Opposition Leader cum Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said Tuesday night.

Shorten said more could be done by government, such as speaking to those standing in the queues and providing paperwork to people in advance of reaching the counter. He also said a call-back system for those waiting on hold should be implemented.

On Monday, Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert held a press conference on the myGov outage, but rather than admitting to a capacity problem, either on the networking side or on the human side since its shopfronts are staffed at lower levels due to social separation edicts, or saying there was an underestimation of how many people would be seeking to interact with Centrelink, he decided instead to head straight into the realm of cyber incidents.

During the press conference, Robert said the portal suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack while simultaneously blaming the outage on legitimate traffic that pushed past the 55,000 concurrent users limit set by government.

Those words were barely two hours old when Robert stood up in Parliament and said it was merely 95,000 people trying to connect to myGov that triggered a DDoS alert, and not an attack at all.

Must read: The people of Australia are a DDoS machine that the government cannot handle  

Shorten said that Robert was clearly implying that there was "some nefarious actors trying to sabotage the government getting money to the people".

"No doubt this minister will come up with an excuse, but the point about it is there were 96,000 people, apparently, who went on to the myGov web site this morning because the government said go there and it crashed," Shorten summarised. "And instead of him just fronting up and taking his medicine, he wanted to get us believing in conspiracies.

"You know that old saying? You know when you're offered a choice of an explanation between a conspiracy and a cock up, always back the cock up? Well, this minister went for the conspiracy, and now he's had to say, no, there was no denial of service attack."

On Tuesday, Shorten was still not pleased with Robert's approach.

"This morning he popped his head up and said, 'my bad', like a teenager, you know, taking responsibility for not doing the dishes the night before," he said. "The government's got to get serious about this, the government's got to get serious."

Text message campaign

From Wednesday, every Australian mobile phone will be sent a text message from the federal government containing advice on how to navigate the health of individuals and the broader community.

"As the spread of the coronavirus increases, it's vital every Australian understands the practical action they must take to look after themselves and help us protect those most at risk," a statement from Minister for Health Greg Hunt, Australian Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, and Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said.

The text message will read:

Coronavirus Aus Gov msg: To stop the spread, stay 1.5m from others, follow rules on social gatherings, wash hands, stay home if sick. aus.gov.au

The government said it would continue to use text messages as one of its communication methods.

"Nearly 36 million messages will be sent over coming days and we thank Telstra, Optus and Vodafone for their support in delivering this important message," the statement continued.

"These measures will help us all to stop the spread of this virus and protect lives.

"Staying away from others is not the Australian way of life but it's essential to our future and how we overcome coronavirus."

Ending his press conference on Tuesday night, Morrison said Australia has one of the highest COVID-19 testing rates in the world.

"The last number I had before coming in here and going to the National Cabinet early this evening was 147,000 tests, and we've been able to secure supply of hundreds of thousands of more tests into Australia," he said.

"Testing is critical to how we manage the coronavirus and its impact, as is the contact tracing. And we're doing a lot of effective work there about how digital methods can be also used to assist in identifying contacts and to be able to shut those issues down, as was practised in Singapore.

"But to fight this fight, there are so many tools that we have to use. But the people we need most are Australians listening, being patient, carefully understanding the things we're asking of them. We know it is a massive change to our lives, but if we do it and we do it consistently and we do it patiently and understandingly, then we will get through this."

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization was reporting nearly 373,000 confirmed cases, with more than 16,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia has reported over 2,000 cases and eight deaths.

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