Image source: istock.com/Dilok Klaisataporn

Government efforts to manage cross-border travel during the Covid-19 pandemic have been hampered by shortcomings in the use of a digital form to verify traveler compliance with regulations, according to a new report.

The National Audit Office (NAO) makes the observation in its report on the range of efforts to manage cross-border travelsuggesting that the accuracy of the data provided via the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) has not been verified.

The PLF was required for passengers arriving between June 2020 and March 2022 as one of the key elements to track people who may have the coronavirus. It recorded people’s contact details, recent travel history, vaccination statuses and compliance with Covid-19 travel measures.

The NAO however indicates that it did not cover some arrivals, that the information was self-reported and that since September 2021 less than 1% of those arriving have had their PLF checked by the Border Force.

From February 2021, private sector carriers were supposed to check that everyone traveling to the UK had submitted a PLF, but this was to ensure the form was completed without checking the accuracy of the data. Carriers generally found a high level of compliance, but still hadn’t done the checks properly, the report said.

Additionally, in October 2021, the Home Office introduced automated PLF checks at the gates of ePassports, but these were limited in their ability to detect inaccuracies.

Critical commentary

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said: “The monitoring of people entering the country was based on good will rather than good data. The government never really understood the numbers, or whether its border measures were working effectively.

The point is among several made by the NAO in stating that the government should learn lessons from the pandemic in implementing cross-border travel measures. These include the fact that good practices, such as system-level risk registers, have not always been adopted as rules have changed, that the public should have been provided with more information on the quality of PCR tests from different vendors, and the UK Health Security Agency has been unable to contact around a third of those expected to self-isolate.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The government has had to balance many competing objectives when managing the border during the pandemic, making short-term changes 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 all future travel measures, applying the lessons of Covid-19.”

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