Quarantine hotels for incoming travelers to the UK during Covid have cost the taxpayer more than £400million, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) investigation, including nearly £100million in unpaid room bills and fraud.
While the government expected hotel costs to be covered by occupants, it emerged the taxpayer was responsible for more than half of the £757m bill. The rooms were for people 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 with Corporate Travel Management to run the hotels, told the NAO that around £74m of bills covering rooms and testing Covid had not been paid. A further £18 million was fraudulently recovered in credit card chargebacks, but only two cases were investigated or challenged.
The losses were revealed in an NAO report on how the UK handled cross-border travel during the pandemic. The report found that travel rules and border policy were inconsistent, confusing and costly, and the government had no way of assessing whether they were worth it.
Among other policies reviewed by the NAO were passenger locator forms, introduced in June 2020, for inbound travelers to indicate where they would be staying and self-isolating. The report found that since September 2021, less than 1% of forms have been checked by Border Force agents. The information provided was entirely self-declared, while “checks by private carriers focused on the existence rather than the accuracy of the data”.
The UK Health Security Agency, which had a £114million contract for home visits to check whether travelers were self-isolating, could not confirm whether 33% of those required to self-isolate actually did.
The NAO has also criticized government attempts to create a market for Covid-19 tests. He said the DHSC had “limited oversight of the market it created and service to the public has been poor at times.” In February, at least 369 private companies offering PCR tests were listed on the government’s website, with prices listed ranging from £15 to £525. The NAO said the companies “have often presented themselves as government-approved”, but the government’s listing gave “minimal assurance that they can provide the services”.
Between February 2021 and January 2022, the border rules have changed at least 10 times. The report said “miscommunication of some metrics created uncertainty”, with “minimal notice” causing operational problems for carriers.
The NAO found that the government ‘did not adopt good practice’ or have any holistic risk assessment of its system, ‘nor ever indicated how its competing objectives of Covid risk management and reopening travel should be balanced and prioritized”.
While departments were monitoring 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 the measures it has deployed, and without an assessment of the additional costs incurred, the government cannot demonstrate that its measures implementation have achieved value for money.”
MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the policy had been “more reactive than proactive, and led to a confusing mishmash of different parties and agendas”.
She added: ‘There was little evidence of a guiding spirit behind its approach and poor communication meant the public was often confused by travel advice.
“Tracking who enters the country was based on goodwill rather than good data. The government never really understood the numbers, or whether its border measures were working effectively.
“More than two years into the pandemic, the government still hasn’t put its house in order. With cases still high and travel restrictions being lifted, the government cannot afford to be complacent,” Hillier said.
Leisure travel was initially banned in March 2020, followed by a travel corridor system opened in summer 2020 which was replaced by a ‘traffic light system’ in May 2021, with varying levels of testing and isolation required.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said the government had had to make short-term changes during the pandemic but now had “the opportunity to ensure it develops a systematic approach to managing all future measures of travel, applying the lessons of Covid-19”.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The pandemic was an unprecedented challenge and we acted quickly and decisively to implement policies designed to save lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
“As the report notes, considerable effort has been made across government to put in place border measures which have helped to protect the UK from the arrival of Covid-19 cases. These measures have bought vital time for our national response to new and concerning variants, contributing to the national effort to contain and manage the virus.