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NAO highlights digital form problems in cross-border travel


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Image source: Klaisataporn

Government efforts to manage cross-border travel during the Covid-19 pandemic were hindered by shortcomings in the use of a digital form to check travellers’ compliance with regulations, according to a new report.

The National Audit Office (NAO) makes the observation within its report on the range of efforts to manage cross-border travel, suggesting that data provided through the passenger locator form (PLF) was not checked for accuracy.

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

The NAO says, however, that it did not cover some arrivals, that the information was self-declared and Since September 2021 less than 1% of people arriving had their PLF checked by the Border Force.

From February 2021 private sector carriers were meant to check that everyone travelling to the UK had submitted a PLF, but this was focused on ensuring the form has been filled in without checking the accuracy of the data. Carriers generally found a high level of compliance but had not aways completed checks properly, the report says.

In addition, in October 2021 the Home Office introduced automated checks of PLFs at electronic passport gates but these were limited in their ability to detect inaccuracies.

Critical comment

Meg Hillier MP, chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, commented: “Monitoring those entering the country relied on good will, rather than good data. Government never really got a handle on the numbers, nor whether its border measures were working effectively.”

The point is among several made by the NAO in stating that the Government should learn from the lessons of the pandemic in implementing cross-border travel measures. These include that good practice, such as system-level risk registers, has not always been adopted as the rules have changed, that the public should have been given more information on the quality of PCR tests from different providers, and the UK Health Security Agency was unable to contact about a third of the people who were meant to be self-isolating.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: "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."

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