The government “does not know” if the COVID travel traffic light system worked despite spending nearly half a billion pounds implementing it, MPs have said.
Quarantine and testing requirements for people arriving in the UK were changed 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) stated.
The traffic light system was introduced in May 2021, and set the rules for arrivals from every country depending on whether it was on the red, amber or green list.
Red list arrivals had to stay in – and pay for – a quarantine hotel for at least 10 days.
Airlines and holiday companies blamed ministers for the limited recovery of foreign travel due to the rules.
The UK had much stricter rules than most European countries who imposed fewer restrictions.
MPs on the PAC claimed the government does not know the health impact of its policies.
Taxpayers subsidised £329 million of the total £757 million cost of quarantine hotels despite travellers having to pay more than £2,000 per adult for hotel quarantine.
Only 2% of guests in hotel quarantine tested positive.
The report stated: “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.”
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COVID-19: Life in hotel quarantine
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier 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” to travel measures.
He said the “constantly changing policies” caused enormous financial damage to the travel sector 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,” he said.