When Nerry Cosentino applied to renew her passport in February, she thought she’d left herself plenty of time.
She was due to fly to Spain for a solo getaway three months later in May, her first trip abroad since the pandemic.
But a few weeks after sending off the paperwork she got an email claiming her old passport contained ink stains and that she needed to explain why.
Costly: Leah Archibald (pictured) lost £700 when she had to drop out of her friend’s hen-do in Portugal on May 11, having applied for her passport in mid-March
Nerry, 60, wrote back that same day to say she wasn’t aware of any damage.
The following week, she was told her application had been withdrawn. No explanation was given and she was unable to get through on the phone.
It meant she missed her holiday and is now £550 out of pocket as a result.
Despite writing to her MP to complain, all the HM Passport Office (HMPO) would say was that its decision to withdraw her application was irreversible.
Her only option was to pay another £85 to reapply. But, six months on, she is still battling to get her old passport back so she can do this.
Nerry, from Sheffield, says: ‘I worked as an NHS nurse throughout Covid, and I can honestly say this has been more stressful.
‘When you do get through you are either cut off or they don’t have a clue what’s going on. I’m stuck.’
Nerry is far from alone. More than half a million Brits are waiting for their application to be processed as civil servants struggle against a vast backlog.
The crisis reached fever pitch last week, with hundreds of desperate holidaymakers descending on HMPO’s office in Victoria, London.
But after queueing from 5.30am — two hours before it opened — anyone not due to leave the UK within 48 hours was turned away.
HMPO is expecting to deal with 9.5 million applications this year, an increase of 2.5 million in a typical year. The uptick comes as little surprise now pandemic rules have been eased.
The agency has confessed it had expected a steep rise in applications as early as July 2021. Yet despite being forewarned, the average processing time for standard applications has soared from three weeks to ten.
Last week, HMPO director Thomas Greig admitted to MPs that 10 pc of live applications had already taken longer than this.
As of July 3, around 23,107 — or 4 per cent — of 616,534 applicants had been waiting for more than 14 weeks, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by a disgruntled traveller.
Desperate: Holidaymakers descended on HM Passport Office in Victoria, London, last week. Over half a million Britons are still waiting for their passport application to be processed
Meanwhile, scores of furious holidaymakers have taken to social media to share their outrage as they are forced to abandon their summer breaks.
And experts warn that no travel insurers will cover missed holiday costs due to passport delays, leaving families out of pocket.
Leah Archibald, a PR executive from East Yorks, lost £700 when she had to drop out of her pal’s hen-do in Portugal in May.
The 24-year-old applied for her passport in mid-March but it didn’t arrive until June 17 — almost five weeks after she was due to go away.
‘I lost the cost of the flights, accommodation and the activities we had planned,’ she said.
‘It’s so annoying. It was such a shame to miss the trip as well, it had been planned for ages.’
> Read our guide: everything you need to know about travel insurance
It’s not just long delays infuriating customers. Another grievance is that it is almost impossible to speak to anyone about their application.
HMPO’s advice phoneline is open until 8pm during the week and 5.30pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Calling it costs 10p per minute from landlines and up to 40p per minute from mobiles.
When customers call, they are routinely forced to wait on hold for hours before anyone picks up.
Those who do get through are often told to hang around for callbacks that never come.
For anyone over 16, a standard passport renewal costs £75.50 online or £85 via the post. For kids, it’s £49 and £58.50 respectively.
You can opt for a ‘one-week fast-track service’ at a cost of £142 for an adult and £122 for a child.
As part of this application, you have to attend an in- person appointment at one of HMPO’s offices.
While it is unlikely travel insurers will cover missed holidays, experts say there are other ways you can try to recoup some of the cost.
Prices: For anyone over 16, a standard passport renewal costs £75.50 online or £85 via the post. For children, it’s £49 and £58.50 respectively
Kevin Pratt, editor of Forbes Advisor, says that if you have paid for HMPO’s fast-track service it has a contractual obligation to get your paperwork to you in a specified timeframe. ‘If it doesn’t fulfil that promise, you may be able to claim compensation directly.’
HMPO states online that while it is not legally responsible for compensating customers, it will do so when it is ‘clearly at fault’. Payments may include out-of-pocket expenses if it has damaged a document or made a mistake.
Crucially, it also says it will consider reimbursing travellers ‘the entire cost of a missed holiday’. Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, so it is worth complaining even if you have not paid for its fast-track service.
To apply for compensation, customers should either telephone or write to HMPO. You can also fill in a complaints form online at gov.uk/government/organisations/hm – passport-office/about/complaints-procedure. Include any evidence such as receipts for accommodation, flights and excursions.
Those worried about their passport arriving in time are advised to contact providers as soon as possible.
‘It’s worth checking your accommodation’s cancellation policy. You might lose a deposit, but that may be better than losing the whole cost,’ Mr Pratt explains. ‘Some flights allow you to rebook.’
An HMPO spokesman says: ‘We will be in contact with Ms Cosentino directly to support her in resolving her application.’
HMPO says it has been telling people to allow up to ten weeks when applying for their passport since April 2021.
‘The overwhelming majority of applications are completed within the published timeframe, with 97.7 per cent of applications being processed within ten weeks in the first half of this year. But we cannot compromise security checks and people should apply with plenty of time prior to travelling.’