The Public Accounts Committee has criticised the government’s handling of travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a report released today, the Committee says that while managing cross-border travel was an essential part of health measures introduced by government during the pandemic, “despite spending at least £486 million on implementing its traffic light system, government did not track its spending on managing cross-border travel or set clear objectives. As a result, it does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused.”

The UK’s traffic light system saw travellers from ‘red’ countries pay to quarantine in hotels. The total cost was £757 million, with travellers paying £428 million, and taxpayers picking up a bill of £329 million. This was despite the fact that the programme was supposed to be self-funding, and despite the cost to individuals increasing to more than £2,200 for a single adult over 10 days in August 2021. The report says that only 2 per cent of hotel quarantined guests tested positive. The net result of the quarantine programme was “confusion and disruption”, according to the Committee.

The report goes on to say that “Similarly, its failure to develop good data to inform its decisions means it does not know the impact on public health of granting 2.5 million exemptions from parts of the system.”

The Committee says that

  • Government relied on private sector companies (‘carriers’) to implement checks on additional health documentation, and on the public to understand and comply with what was required of them. Despite this key role and the costs incurred, government gave carriers no specific additional support.
  • Government did not clearly communicate changes to the measures to either carriers or the public. Government changed the rules at least 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, but gave the travel industry little time to adapt its operations for those changes.

The Committee found that

  • People travelling found the rules difficult to understand, and 40 per cent of people did not know the rules on self-isolation.
  • Departments have failed to protect the taxpayer, and the public, from the risk of fraud and poor quality of service from providers of COVID-19 tests for people travelling to the UK, or to vigorously pursue the fraud that has occurred.

In conclusion Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The approach to border controls and quarantine caused huge confusion and disruption with 10 changes in a year. And now we can see that it is not clear what this achieved. We can be clear on one thing – the cost to the taxpayer in subsidising expensive quarantine hotels, and more millions of taxpayers’ money blown on measures with no apparent plan or reasoning and precious few checks or proof that it was working to protect public health.”

“We don’t have time and it is not enough for Government to feed these failures into its delayed public inquiry – it is not learning lessons fast enough from the pandemic and is missing opportunities to react quickly to future emergencies or even current events like new variants of Covid or the spread of Monkeypox.”

Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA – The Travel Association said:
“The UK’s restrictions throughout the pandemic brought travel to a standstill, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods, and the industry is still feeling the effects of these policies.”

“Protecting public health is the ultimate priority when in a pandemic but the measures put in place need to be backed up by evidence and proportionate to the risk. It’s important Government learns the lessons from the last couple of years and has a sensible and evidence-based approach to dealing with any future variants or pandemics, and has a system of financial support in place for businesses.”

The full report can be downloaded below:

Managing cross-border travel during the COVID-19 pandemic