Ebola screening a political gesture, says doctor

Passenger at the Eurostar station in St Pancras Image copyright EPA
Image caption Screening is to be introduced at key airports and international stations, including London's St Pancras

Screening passengers for Ebola at two UK airports and Eurostar stations is a "political gesture" a senior consultant has said in an email seen by the BBC.

The screening programme - due to start at next week - has been criticised in a leaked email circulated to doctors.

It said the measure was "unlikely to provide public health benefits".

But the government's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, said although screening was a "blunt instrument" it would save lives.

Dame Sally said screening was "unlikely" to pick up any cases but stressed the "great advantage" would be to alert people to what symptoms to look for and what to do if they fall ill.

This would reduce their chances of dying and of spreading the virus to others, she said.

'Right thing to do'

Passenger screening - to be introduced at Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Eurostar terminals next week - will include the assessment of passengers' travel history and a "possible medical assessment".

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Media captionChief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies says the screening programme is not a political gesture

The Department of Health said further details would be announced next week, before the measures came into effect.

Similar measures are being taken in the US, with screening under way at New York's JFK airport and checks at some other airports due to start in the coming days.

However, BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said she had spoken to another consultant - also involved in the UK's Ebola programme - who had questioned whether someone wanting to enter the UK would be honest if they had come into contact with the virus.

The consultant raised concerns about why health workers involved in screening were not being given protective clothing.

Responding to criticisms from doctors, Dame Sally said: "At this time, this is the right thing to do."

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Media captionActors played the parts of Ebola patients, as Jane Dreaper reports

She also said exercises held on Saturday to test the UK's Ebola response had been "vitally important" and would strengthen protection plans.

Lessons would be learned from the "realistic" eight-hour drill which had tested the response of the government and the emergency services, Dame Sally added.

Actors simulated symptoms, medical staff wore full protective suits and the health secretary chaired a mock emergency meeting.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was "doubly reassured" that the government had "robust plans" in place in the event of an Ebola case in the UK and that the exercise was just part of this.

Ebola symptoms: What to do in the UK

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Royal Free Hospital in London has a unit for treating any UK Ebola patients

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding - but these are similar to more common infections like flu and some stomach bugs.

If you have these symptoms and have had contact with an Ebola patient, ring 111 first. Do not go directly to A&E or a GP.

If there has been no contact with Ebola, seek help from 111, your GP or A&E if necessary.

The chances of developing Ebola in the UK are low.

Merlin helicopters

Figures from the World Health Organization show there have been 4,024 confirmed or suspected Ebola deaths in the worst-affected West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone during the current outbreak.

There have been 8,399 confirmed or suspected cases in total, mostly in West Africa.

As part of the UK effort to help contain the outbreak, 750 military personnel and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus, a medical ship, are being sent to Sierra Leone from Falmouth, in Cornwall, next week.

It will travel with three Merlin helicopters, aircrew and engineers to provide transport and support to medical teams and aid workers.

Personnel from the Army's 22 Field Hospital have been training in York and are expected to be sent to west Africa in the coming weeks to run a 12-bed facility specifically to treat medics who have caught Ebola.

The UK government said it had been at the "forefront" of responding to Ebola, giving £125m in support so far.

It said this would "support 700 treatment beds to aid up to 8,800 patients over six months", help in "shoring up Sierra Leone's stretched public health services" and provide vital supplies including protective clothing.

  • Protective Ebola suit

  • Surgical cap


    The cap forms part of a protective hood covering the head and neck. It offers medical workers an added layer of protection, ensuring that they cannot touch any part of their face whilst in the treatment centre.

  • Goggles


    Goggles, or eye visors, are used to provide cover to the eyes, protecting them from splashes. The goggles are sprayed with an anti-fogging solution before being worn. On October 21, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced stringent new guidelines for healthcare personnel who may be dealing with Ebola patients. In the new guidelines, health workers are advised to use a single use disposable full face shield as goggles may not provide complete skin coverage.

  • Medical mask


    Covers the mouth to protect from sprays of blood or body fluids from patients. When wearing a respirator, the medical worker must tear this outer mask to allow the respirator through.

  • Respirator


    A respirator is worn to protect the wearer from a patient's coughs. According to guidelines from the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the respirator should be put on second, right after donning the overalls.

  • Medical Scrubs


    A surgical scrub suit, durable hospital clothing that absorbs liquid and is easily cleaned, is worn as a baselayer underneath the overalls. It is normally tucked into rubber boots to ensure no skin is exposed.

  • Overalls


    The overalls are placed on top of the scrubs. These suits are similar to hazardous material (hazmat) suits worn in toxic environments. The team member supervising the process should check that the equipment is not damaged.

  • Double gloves


    A minimum two sets of gloves are required, covering the suit cuff. When putting on the gloves, care must be taken to ensure that no skin is exposed and that they are worn in such a way that any fluid on the sleeve will run off the suit and glove. Medical workers must change gloves between patients, performing thorough hand hygiene before donning a new pair. Heavy duty gloves are used whenever workers need to handle infectious waste.

  • Apron


    A waterproof apron is placed on top of the overalls as a final layer of protective clothing.

  • Boots


    Ebola health workers typically wear rubber boots, with the scrubs tucked into the footwear. If boots are unavailable, workers must wear closed, puncture and fluid-resistant shoes.