Government ‘does not know’ if £486 million Covid travel traffic light system worked, say MPs

The UK’s travel rules changed 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022

The government “does not know” whether its Covid travel restrictions worked, MPs have said.

The traffic light system for international travel, which saw countries categorised as ‘red’, ‘amber’ and ‘green’ based on their coronavirus risk, caused “confusion and disruption” for travellers, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said.

The government “does not know” whether its Covid travel restrictions worked, MPs say (Photo: Getty Images)

Almost half a billion pounds was spent implementing the system which set rules for arrivals from every country, with arrivals from red list countries required to pay to stay in a quarantine hotel for at least 10 days.

Taxpayers subsidised £329 million of the total £757 million cost of quarantine hotels, the report added.

That is despite the bill for individuals rising to more than £2,200 for a single adult, and only 2% of guests in hotel quarantine tested positive for Covid.

Airlines and holiday companies blamed ministers for the limited recovery of foreign travel due to the rules, with many European countries imposing fewer restrictions.

The committee claims the government does not know the health impact of the policies it implemented.

The report said: “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 to manage travel during the pandemic, government did not track its spending on managing cross-border travel or set clear objectives, so does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused.”

‘Confusion and disruption’

The testing and quarantine requirements for people arriving in the UK were changed 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, according to a report by the PAC, causing huge confusion for travellers.

Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, 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.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said the government should be “ashamed of the suck-it-and-see approach” taken towards travel rules during the pandemic, and said steps need to be taken to ensure borders are kept open in the event of another outbreak to help protect businesses and jobs.

He said: “The constantly changing policies not only caused enormous damage to the travel sector in terms of financial harm, but also hurt UK plc’s image around the world.

“Urgent steps need to be taken to ensure the country’s borders are kept open should another variant emerge, and that government has a more positive policy in place to enable airlines, airports and other travel businesses to keep functioning so as to protect jobs and livelihoods.”