No one could have predicted the run on Centrelink offices around the country as thousands of Australians tried to register with the welfare agency for the first time, the federal government says.
Long queues formed on Monday after the online portal for government services crashed as people scrambled to apply for benefits as job losses mount due to the economic impact of the coronavirus which has shut down many businesses.
"I don't think that anybody expected or could have prepared for ... such an accelerated demand that came yesterday," Social Services Minister Anne Ruston told Nine's Today show on Tuesday.
"We clearly understand the distress that this coronavirus is causing."
The federal government is now appealing to people trying to register with Centrelink - many for the first time - to hold off for a few days.
"We are asking for patience and calm ... What we saw yesterday was heartbreaking."
The MyGov online portal crashed on Monday after it was overwhelmed by people trying to access it.
The government said the site could only handle 55,000 visitors at once, but numbers spiked to almost 100,000. On a normal day, visitor numbers are about 6,000.
The volume of traffic was so high, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert initially claimed hackers were responsible for crashing the website.
Senator Ruston said there was no excuse for what happened.
"I'm apologising," she said.
Centrelink will boost its workforce by 5000 people to deal with the influx of applicants and extend call centre hours.
But there will be fewer staff at the centres because of social distancing requirements. No pop-up shopfronts are planned.
Many families, workers and business owners have been forced to seek social security payments as the pandemic throws the national economy, which is likely heading into a recession, into chaos.
Sentor Ruston said no-one needs to line up at Centrelink offices on Tuesday, unless they don't have a phone or internet access.
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek says the government should have planned better and made sure the system was up to task.
"And if it does crash, for goodness sake, we've got a minister pretending it was a hacking job - the fastest way the government can lose trust of Australians is not to be frank about this stuff," she told ABC News.
"These are unprecedented times. It is likely the government will need to do more."
Australian Associated Press