Almost 170,000 motorists with health conditions are waiting for driving licences to be issued as civil servants struggle to clear a backlog of nearly 50,000 applications that built up during the pandemic.
DVLA’s chief executive, Julie Lennard, confirmed in evidence to MPs on Thursday that 168,000 medical driving licence applications, including new licences and renewals, were pending as of 23 November.
The agency’s aim is to reduce the number of applications in the “live queue” to its normal level of 120,000 by January at the latest, meaning that it now has about 48,000 extra forms to process. It had previously hoped to clear the backlog by September this year. Of those, about half cannot be completed until the DVLA receives further information, such as doctors’ reports, it said.
The backlog has reduced since February, when the live queue peaked at 333,000, with Lennard saying the department has made “really good progress”.
It has not reinstated its pre-pandemic target of completing 90% of applications within 90 days, and could not provide guidance on current average waiting times. The time frame depends on the complexity of the applicant’s medical problems, the DVLA said.
Between April 2020 and September 2022, of the medical licensing decisions that the agency made, 36% took longer than 90 working days, and 6% took longer than 250 working days. In August, the Guardian reported the case of one driver who had been waiting six months for a new licence.
Lennard gave her evidence on the backlog to the public accounts committee following the publication of a report by the National Audit Office earlier this month.
During the pandemic, the DVLA’s ability to process paper forms, which account for 30% of all applications, was reduced as fewer staff were able to work from its office in Swansea. Industrial action in 2021 also contributed to the delays, it said.
The number of driving licence applications in progress, including both medical and standard, peaked at 1.1m in September 2021, the NAO report showed.
Between April 2020 and September 2022, of the 24.3m applications that DVLA completed, 3.3m took longer than expected. The majority of these, 2.4m, were paper-based ordinary licence applications.
It returned to its usual time limits for processing standard driving licence applications by May this year, and reduced the number in progress to typical levels by July. However, medical licence applications are still being delayed.
“All the things that are in our control are completely back to normal … this is the one area that is not fully in our control,” Lennard told MPs.