Quarantine hotels for travelers arriving in the UK during Covid have cost the taxpayer more than £400m, a National Audit Office (NAO) investigation has found, including nearly £100m in unpaid room bills and fraud.
While the government expected the hotel costs to be covered by the occupants, the taxpayer was found to be responsible for more than half of the £757m bill. The rooms were for those traveling to the UK from high-risk “red list” countries during the pandemic.
The Department of Health and Social Care, which issued a £385m contract to Corporate Travel Management to run the hotels, told the NAO that around £74m in bills covering rooms and Covid tests had not been paid. Another £18m was fraudulently recovered in credit card chargebacks, but only two cases were investigated or disputed.
The losses were revealed in a NAO report on how the UK managed cross-border travel during the pandemic. The report found that travel rules and border policy were inconsistent, confusing and expensive, and the government had no way of assessing whether they were worth it.
Among other policies revised by the NAO were passenger location forms, introduced in June 2020, for inbound travelers to report where they would be staying and isolating themselves. The report found that as of September 2021, less than 1% of forms have been verified by border force officials. The information provided was entirely self-declared, while “verifications by private sector carriers focused on the existence rather than the accuracy of the data”.
The UK Health Safety Agency, which had a £114m contract for home visits to check that travelers were self-isolating, could not confirm whether 33% of those forced to isolate actually did so.
The NAO also criticized the government’s attempts to create a market for Covid-19 tests. He said DHSC had “limited oversight of the market it created, and service to the public has sometimes been poor.” In February, at least 369 private companies offering PCR tests were listed on the government website, with stated prices ranging from £15 to £525. The NAO said the companies “often advertised themselves as government approved”, but the government listing gave “minimum assurance that they can provide the services”.
Between February 2021 and January 2022, the rules for the border were changed at least 10 times. The report said that “poor communication of some measures created uncertainty”, with “minimal notice” causing operational problems for carriers.
The NAO concluded that the government “has not adopted good practices” or taken a holistic risk assessment of its system, “nor has it ever stated how its competing objectives of managing Covid risk and reopening travel should be balanced and prioritized.”
While departments tracked their own spending on cross-border travel measures, there was no central government tracking of the total, despite costs of at least £486m.
The NAO added: “As it has not developed a set of performance measures to track the effectiveness of measures implemented and without assessing the additional costs incurred, the government cannot demonstrate that its implementation measures have achieved value for money.”
Representative Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said the policy was “more reactive than proactive and led to a confusing mix of different parties and programs”.
She added: “There was little evidence of a guiding mind behind their approach and poor communication meant the public was often confused by the travel advice.
“Monitoring who entered the country depended on good will, not good data. The government was never really able to control the numbers, nor whether its border measures were working effectively.
“More than two years since the beginning of the pandemic, the government still has not put its house in order. With cases still high and travel restrictions removed, the government cannot afford to be complacent,” Hillier said.
Leisure travel was initially banned in March 2020, followed by a system of travel corridors opening in summer 2020 which was replaced by a “traffic light system” in May 2021, with various levels of testing and isolation required.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said the government had to make short-term changes during the pandemic, but now has “an opportunity to ensure it develops a systematic approach to managing any future travel measures, applying learning from Covid-19.” . 19”.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge and we have acted quickly and decisively to implement policies aimed at saving lives and protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed.
“As the report notes, considerable efforts have been made across government to implement border measures that have helped protect the UK from the arrival of Covid-19 cases. These measures have bought vital time for our domestic response to new and worrisome variants, contributing to the national effort to contain and manage the virus.”