Despite spending around $585 million on implementing its traffic light system as part of its wider response to manage travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK government does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons.
The government introduced health measures at the border from 2020 and implemented controls in four main phases, and from early 2021 operated a new “traffic light system” that broadly remained in place, with modifications, until March 2022. The traffic light system placed countries on red, amber or green lists, with more restrictions applying for travel from red-list countries and fewer for green.
The report released on Tuesday stated that while the government did not track spending on implementing health measures, the National Audit Office estimated that the government spent $585 million on the traffic light system in 2021–22.
The government also did not strike the right balance between its reliance on the travel industry to implement travel controls and the support it provided.
“Carriers were legally responsible for checking that everyone travelling to the UK had submitted a Passenger Locator Form recording their contact information and recent travel history. This imposed extra costs on carriers in a period where their revenue had fallen dramatically,” the report stated.
Although the government provided access to up to $9.6 billion of financial support during the pandemic, this was mostly general support from the furlough scheme. It did not provide any additional financial support to carriers to implement the travel controls it introduced.
Despite government’s reliance on carriers, it sometimes did not provide carriers with sufficient notice ahead of public statements that travel rules were changing. People travelling found the rules difficult
to understand, and 40 percent of them did not know the rules on self-isolation, according to the report.
While the National Audit Office noted that changes at short notice in the fast-moving environment of the pandemic was inevitable, but the processes for communicating these changes to those responsible for implementing them, in advance of a public announcement, were not timely.
“The government is not learning lessons fast enough from the pandemic and is missing opportunities to react quickly to future emergencies… In the longer term, health measures may be needed to deal with new variants of Covid-19 or other diseases such as monkeypox, so government needs to ensure it is able to respond quickly,” stated the report.