England’s pandemic ‘traffic-light’ travel system under fire

England’s “traffic-light” system, introduced by the UK government to enable safe international travel during the coronavirus pandemic, was never properly tested or proven to be effective despite taxpayers spending almost £500mn on the scheme, an influential cross-party group of MPs said on Tuesday.

Ministers did “not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused”, the public accounts committee found. The government spent at least £486mn on the scheme across five departments between 2021 and 2022, according to official estimates.

Even though England’s travel rules were changed “at least 10 times” between February 2021 and January 2022, when the traffic-light system was operational, the PAC said the government “did not clearly communicate changes to either carriers or the public”.

The scheme designated countries as green, amber or red depending on their respective Covid-19 rates, with rules for each category ranging from testing requirements to a 10-day hotel quarantine stay.

“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 MPs said.

The biggest cost to the taxpayer came from the managed hotel quarantine service. Although it was initially meant to be self-funded, taxpayers ended up spending £329mn on the service, or roughly half the total cost, despite only 2 per cent of quarantined guests testing positive.

In November last year, 11 African countries were placed on the red list, provoking anger from some of their leaders and forcing returning travellers into managed hotel quarantine, after the Omicron variant first emerged in southern Africa. The hotel quarantine service cost guests about £2,200 for a 10-day stay from August last year onwards.

The committee also criticised the Department of Health and Social Care for its management of the controversial travel testing system. DHSC’s “failure to properly set up the market for travel tests put the public at risk of fraud and poor quality of service”, it said.

The MPs took aim at how the travel testing platform on the government’s website legitimised unaccredited providers, “giving the impression that they had been approved by government when in reality they may not have met the required standards”.

Meg Hillier, Labour MP and committee chair, said: “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.”

She added that the government was “not learning lessons” quickly enough from the pandemic and was “missing opportunities to react quickly” to new Covid variants, the monkeypox outbreak across Europe or future public health emergencies.

The government said it had “acted swiftly and decisively to implement policies” that saved lives during the pandemic and that it would co-operate fully with the recently launched Covid-19 public inquiry.

“Our top priority was public health, and considerable efforts were made across government to put border measures in place that helped to protect the UK . . . buying vital time for our domestic response to new and concerning variants,” it added.

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