The UK government’s Covid-19 travel restrictions were “inconsistent”, with the traffic light system “confusing” for both the industry and travellers, according to a new report from the House of Commons’ Transport Committee.
The committee, chaired by Conservative MP Huw Merriman, said that the government’s traffic light system, which was introduced in summer 2021 to enable the restart of international travel, was “opaque, ambiguous and inconsistent”.
“Government restrictions on international travel throughout the pandemic were disproportionate to the risks to public health,” added the committee in its report into how the UK’s aviation industry can recover from the pandemic.
“It restricted international travel to manage the virus’s spread, but the arbitrary nature of those restrictions left travellers struggling to secure refunds, to access affordable testing and to navigate the confusing traffic light system.”
The report said that these measures had “imposed severe economic costs” on the travel industry during the past two years. The committee called for a “transparent and predictable” system to be created for international travel to cope with future health crises.
“The government must build international travel into its future pandemic resilience planning, developing a transparent and predictable system that can be used to facilitate safe international travel during potential future health crises,” urged the committee in its recommendations.
“Any restrictions on international travel must be proportionate and comparable to those in place across the rest of the UK economy.”
The committee added that the travel industry should be compensated for economic losses when the restrictions imposed go beyond those applied to the domestic UK economy.
“We welcome the government’s decision to remove all international travel requirements,” added the report. “We also welcome the government’s statement that future international travel contingency measures will only be implemented in extreme circumstances.”
MPs urged the government to publish its aviation recovery plan as a “priority”, which should be no later than 1 June with the summer season fast approaching.
Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association, said the report “clearly shows how the aviation and the wider travel sectors suffered due to the government’s confusing and inconsistent approach to international travel restrictions throughout the pandemic”.
Wratten backed the committee’s appeal for the government to publish its aviation recovery plan by the start of June.
“The government needs to set out an international toolkit that means no further restrictions will be put in place without transparent advice,” he added.
“In order to truly level up, it is absolutely vital that the government reviews its subsidy rules and its APD (air passenger duty) policy for there to be an improvement in domestic air connectivity between the four nations of the UK.”
The committee has also made several recommendations to help ease the current disruption at UK airports, as travel demand increases quickly at a time when the aviation industry has yet to recruit enough staff to deal with these higher passenger numbers.
These recommendations include prioritising the “timely processing” of security checks for airport job applicants and allowing new employees to start supervised classroom training when their initial security checks have been completed.
The committee’s report comes days after a study by the National Audit Office found that UK government has spent at least £486 million on implementing international travel measures during the pandemic.
The organisation said the government did not have a system in place to measure the effectiveness of border rules, which changed at least 10 times between February 2021 and January 2022, as well as the money spent on implementing them.
It also revealed that UK taxpayers will be paying half of the £786 million cost of running the government’s mandatory hotel quarantine service for passengers arriving from red-list countries between April and December 2021.
Around 214,000 people went into this mandatory hotel quarantine system with their payments only accounting for around half the cost of the whole scheme.