Background to the report

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world had to quickly adopt a variety of approaches to border management, with some adopting much stricter controls than others. The pandemic had an immediate and severe impact on the volume of travel to the UK. People travelling to the UK by air in April 2020 fell to 1% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2019.

Jump to downloads

Since 2020, restrictions have generally included requirements for people to submit contact and travel information, including a declaration of negative COVID-19 tests before travel, self-isolation after arriving from certain countries with further tests after arrival and quarantine in government-approved quarantine hotels. Putting the measures in place, often at speed, and adapting and sustaining them, has required the considerable efforts of civil servants and others to deliver the changes to time-pressured deadlines. The nature of the work was often a crisis response delivered with limited information, with the responses necessarily evolving in the constantly changing environment of the pandemic.

Scope of the report

We prepared this report to inform Parliament’s overall consideration of the government’s response to the pandemic. It considers the effectiveness of the UK government’s implementation of its COVID-19 measures relating to crossborder travel. We focused on the implementation of policy for controlling COVID-19 in England from February 2021 to March 2022.

We considered whether government had a clear overall system for implementing COVID-19 measures for cross-border travel, whether its core elements had been put in place effectively and how well the overall system was working. The report examines the UK government’s approach to:

  • COVID-19 measures relating to cross-border travel;
  • the building blocks for implementation of travel measures; and
  • implementing the measures overall.

Report conclusions

The border has remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, during which government has clearly had to balance decision-making on public health with other considerations, such as the recovery of international travel and maintenance of critical supply chains. While it is inevitable that policy and implementation needed to evolve to meet the changing nature of the pandemic, a lack of formally articulated processes and routine management obscured performance, expenditure and risk management. Government has not clearly articulated how it is assessing the success of its measures, which have also incurred costs and exposed the taxpayer to fraud. As it has not developed a set of performance measures to track the effectiveness of the measures it has deployed and with no evaluation of the additional costs incurred, government cannot demonstrate its implementation measures have achieved value for money.

Two years into the pandemic, the overall system should now be more structured and managed more formally. Given the recent removal of travel restrictions, the government has some breathing space with an opportunity for it to stand back and put its overall system for implementing travel measures on a more sustainable footing. It will be particularly important to establish a risk-based approach where measures can be reinstated at short notice to respond to any further developments in the pandemic, for example, the emergence of new variants of concern. The government will need to avoid creating any further unnecessary expense should travel measures need to be re-implemented in the future.

“The government has had to balance many competing objectives when managing the border through the pandemic, making changes at short notice to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. After two years of the pandemic and following the recent removal of travel restrictions, the government has an opportunity to ensure that it develops a systematic approach to managing any future travel measures, applying the learning from COVID-19.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (21 Apr 2022)

Latest reports