The government freephone service is experiencing a barrage of calls linked to the recently mailed cost-of-living and tax refund cheques.

Callers have reported waiting on the freephone 153 for over 40 minutes to speak to a call agent. Times of Malta was on hold for 30 minutes before getting through to the helpline.

Once through, the journalist was informed by the receiver that the long waiting time was because the agency has been dealing with a flood of calls related to queries about the government cheques.

The freephone falls under, the online guide to government services set up in 2015. CEO Massimo Vella said he is aware of the ‘abnormal’ situation the call centre is experiencing.

According to Vella, on a given day, the helpline would receive around 600 calls related to queries on tax and another 1,300 regarding social security issues.

“On Monday, we had over 4,000 calls related to the tax refund and stimulus payments and these are over and above the calls we receive on a daily basis,” he said. 

In the past few days, he added, the helpline received between 4,000 to 5,000 calls every day regarding the cheque payments.

Vella said that the increase in queries is also reflected in the number of emails sent to the agency.

On average, the agency receives approximately 4,000 emails a month. In just one week, the number of emails totalled around 3,700, the majority being related to cheques, he said.

Tax refund and cost-of-living cheques were sent out last week. According to Finance Minister Clyde Caruana they were sent out earlier to help people during “these challenging times”.

Workers and students receive cheques of €100, while pensioners and people on social benefits receive up to €200.

This is over and above the tax refunds payments which range from €60 to €145 and were announced in the budget.

The payments will benefit 380,00 people, Caruana said.

The €70 million cash injection was announced on February 3, just 17 days before Prime Minister Robert Abela called the March 26 election.

In the past few days, the helpline received between 4,000 to 5,000 calls every day regarding the cheque payments. Photo: ShutterstockIn the past few days, the helpline received between 4,000 to 5,000 calls every day regarding the cheque payments. Photo: Shutterstock

While Caruana denies that sending out the cheques on the eve of the election is a vote-buying exercise, others think otherwise.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech slammed the government for carrying out a ‘vote-buying exercise’ on various occasions and independent candidate Arnold Cassola filed an official report with the Electoral Commission against Abela and Caruana for “corrupt practices”.

'Further 35 call agents hired'

Meanwhile, the CEO said the agency is addressing the increased demand in queries and another 35 call agents have been hired.

“We now have more call agents than we usually do. Normally we have 12 agents who answer tax-related queries and another 22 who answer the social security questions,” he said.

Vella added that most callers would query the value of their tax refund and stimulus cheque,  which are based on the category they fall into.

Queries also included a change in address and cheques not yet received.

He said the agency is also working on introducing a system of ‘call-backs’, which will reduce the amount of time a caller is on hold or waiting to get through to an agent.

“We are working on a system where we can take the callers’ details and then the call agent will call them back, so as to reduce the amount of waiting time,” Vella said.

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