In a report today the public accounts committee says despite spending at least £486 million on implementing the international travel “traffic light system” during the pandemic, government “does not know whether the system worked or whether the cost was worth the disruption caused”.

Government changed the travel rules at least 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, but gave the travel industry little time to adapt.

It relied on private sector travel carriers to implement checks on additional health documentation but despite this key role and the costs incurred gave them no specific additional support.

The government relied on the public to understand and comply with what was required of them, but “did not clearly communicate changes to either carriers or the public”. Some 40 per cent of people were aware of the rules on self-isolation.

Government also does not know the impact on public health of the estimated 2.5 million exemptions given to select groups from some of the requirements, or how many of them tested positive for COVID-19. In not setting out the reasons for exemptions for those attending Euro 2020 and London Fashion Week, government risked undermining “people’s willingness to comply with rules”. 

The taxpayer subsidised £329 million of the total £757 million quarantine service cost, though it was meant to be self-funding with the rest passed to people travelling. This was despite the cost to individuals increasing to more than £2,200 for a single adult over 10 days in August 2021. Only 2 per cent of hotel quarantined guests tested positive.

The committee also says 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 also failed to adequately protect the taxpayer from fraud in the Managed Quarantine Service or pursue the “substantial” fraud that has occurred. Despite the £100 million cost of contracts for home visits, approximately one-third of people may not have complied with requirements to isolate at home.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the public accounts committee, 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.”