THE UK Government spent £486million on managing cross-border travel during the pandemic … but does not know if the system worked or whether it was worth the cash because it did not track its spending, a damning report has concluded.

The review by the Committee of Public Accounts scrutinised the Government’s traffic-light system during the Covid-19 crisis where countries were placed on red, amber, or green lists depending on their level of assessed risk.

Government requirements were different for each category but measures included the need for people to submit data in a Passenger Locator Form, take tests after entering the UK and, if entering from high-risk countries, to stay in managed quarantine hotels, provided by the Managed Quarantine Service (MQS), for at least 10 days after arrival.

Almost £500m was spent on implementing the confusing system – as estimated by the National Audit Office - but the committee says because the government did not properly track its spending or set clear objectives, it does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused.

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It also said the Government “did not clearly communicate” changes to the measures. Ministers changed the rules at least 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, but gave the travel industry “little time to adapt its operations” each time and the report concluded people found the rules tricky to understand.

The report has made several recommendations and conclusions, saying the Government is “not learning lessons fast enough from the pandemic and is missing opportunities to react quickly to future emergencies”.  

It said: “Despite spending at least £486m 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.

“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.

“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.

The National: The report said the airport industry suggested health measures only delayed the peak in the number of cases from new variants by seven daysThe report said the airport industry suggested health measures only delayed the peak in the number of cases from new variants by seven days

“Despite this key role and the costs incurred, Government gave carriers no specific additional support. It also 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. People travelling found the rules difficult to understand, and 40% of people did not know the rules on self-isolation.

“We are concerned that Government did not attempt to measure whether its health measures were successful, particularly as research commissioned by the airport industry suggested health measures only delayed the peak in the number of cases from new variants by seven days.”

The Home Office, the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC), and the Department for Transport (DfT) were responsible for implementing the main measures in the traffic-light system, working with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office which provided travel advice. The Cabinet Office acted as the central coordinator for decision-making.

The report concluded that although a reactive, fast-paced approach to emerging issues was necessary at the start of the crisis, the Government should have moved to a more systematic approach “sooner”.

It highlighted it took two days to reactivate the MQS in response to the Omicron variant, which meant potentially infectious people were allowed to quarantine at home instead.

And now the government has stood the service down, the committee said it may take longer to reintroduce if needed again.

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The report added: “While the Department of Health & Social Care asserts that the service was value for money as part of the totality of health interventions against Covid-19, it could not tell us what the overall impact of quarantine hotels themselves had been, other than preventing around 12,000 cases entering the country.

“In total, the quarantine service cost £757m. While it was meant to be self-funding, the taxpayer has ended up subsidising £329 million, almost half the bill, with the rest passed to people travelling.”

In other conclusions, the committee said the Government did not strike the right balance between its reliance on the travel industry to implement travel controls and the support it provided, and its failure to communicate the reasons for frequent chances to health measures made it hard for the public to understand and adhere to them.

“While some complexity was inevitable, we consider that frequent changes to the rules every three weeks threatened to undermine compliance,” the report said.

The committee has recommended the Cabinet Office, working with the Treasury, should set out and publish how cross-government portfolios should report and track their overall cost within six months including setting out expected costs at the outset and a requirement to amend and update assessments as the situation changes.

It has also said the Cabinet Office should set out, as part of its report capturing lessons learned, what it has learned about communicating with the public effectively and what it will do differently in future.