UK Covid travel rules 'confusing mishmash' of ideas that bewildered the public

Measures such as quarantine hotels were brought in but there was no system to measure success, report says

England's coronavirus restrictions on international travel were imposed by different government departments with no overall assessment of their impact, according to a report published on Thursday.

The report exposed “a confusing mishmash of different parts and programmes”, said Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee.

She described the travel rules as “more reactive than proactive” without safeguards to assess impact.

Measures such as the traffic light system, self-isolation, testing, quarantine hotels and passenger locator forms were brought in without a system to measure success, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

“Government’s response to managing the border was more reactive than proactive, and led to a confusing mishmash of different parts and programmes, Ms Hillier said.

“There was little evidence of a guiding mind behind its approach and poor communication meant the public were often bewildered by the travel advice.

A woman sits at a window at the Radisson Blu Hotel at Heathrow Airport, as Britain introduces a hotel quarantine programme for arrivals from a "red list" of 30 countries due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Britain, February 26, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

“Monitoring those entering the country relied on good will, rather than good data. Government never really got a handle on the numbers, nor whether its border measures were working effectively.

“Over two years since the pandemic began, government has still not got its house in order. With cases still high and removal of travel restrictions, government cannot afford to be complacent. Lessons must be learnt so we have joined-up and effective border measures for the management of any future emergencies.”

The NAO found there was a failure to track the cost of the travel rules despite at least £486 million ($632m) of taxpayers' money being spent on implementing them during the 2021/22 financial year.

It also noted the impact of the pandemic on the travel industry in terms of lost revenue has been “significant”.

All restrictions were dropped on March 18, but the report urged the government to learn lessons in case they need to be reintroduced.

“The government has had to balance many competing objectives when managing the border through the pandemic, making changes at short notice to adapt to the challenges of Covid-19,” said NAO chief Gareth Davies.

“After two years of the pandemic and following the recent removal of travel restrictions, the government has an opportunity to ensure that it develops a systematic approach to managing any future travel measures, applying the learning from Covid-19.”

England's rules for international travel changed at least 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, the NAO found.

The report stated that the government “did not have an assessment bringing together all the risks across its border measures for the system as a whole”.

It went on: “Changes to the government's measures were inevitably made during 2021 to react to evolving circumstances and new information, but these were implemented without formalised system-wide mechanisms to help it adapt its approach, monitor effectiveness, learn lessons and check that changes were being made consistently.”

Ministerial committees took policy decisions which were implemented by at least four government departments:

The Department for Health and Social Care was responsible for rules on quarantine and testing.

The Home Office was responsible for implementing checks at the border.

The Department for Transport created the traffic light system which categorised destinations based on risk.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office gave travel advice to British citizens.

Updated: April 20, 2022, 11:01 PM
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