Politics

Ministers do ‘not know’ if the £486million Covid traffic light system for international travel worked

The government must learn lessons from the pandemic faster if it is to react to new variants or the spread of Monkeypox, MPs warned.

Heathrow airport terminal

Heathrow airport’s total pandemic losses have topped £4billion. Image: Nick Fewings / Unsplash

The government spent £486 million on a “traffic light system” to manage the spread of Covid in international travel, but it “doesn’t  know” if it worked.

The frequently changing restrictions on international travel caused “huge confusion and disruption” yet the government “does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth it” a new report from MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found. 

The government changed the rules on international travel 10 times in 11 months, but “did not clearly communicate changes to either carriers or the public”. This left just 40 per cent of the public aware of the rules on self-isolation, and gave the travel industry little time to adapt.

Under the traffic light system, every country was put on the red, amber or green list, which set out the rules for arrivals from that country on testing and quarantine. This was replaced with a simpler system of simply “red list and rest of world” in September 2021.

“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,” said Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC.

“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.”

The committee also found the government doesn’t know what impact the estimated 2.5 million exemptions given to those travelling to the Euro 2020 (held in 2021) and London Fashion Week, had on public health. It did conclude however that in making the exceptions, the government risked undermining “people’s willingness to comply with rules”. 

Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO of Advantage Travel Partnership said the findings were “a kick in the teeth for everyone connected to the travel industry”. 

“Many businesses continue to face hardship due to shambolic travel measures, inadequate support particularly travel agents and travellers who were ripped off for no good reason,” she continued. 

This is the latest in a series of damning reports questioning the billions of pounds spent by the government’ on its Covid response. 

The PAC also found in March last year that the “unimaginable” cost – £37 billion over two years – of the government’s Test and Trace system failed to deliver the central promise of averting another lockdown.

The committee found no clear evidence of the system’s overall effectiveness or whether it contributed to reducing Covid infection levels at all.

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