UK government defends Ebola screening decision

A passenger at Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Queens, New York Image copyright EPA
Image caption The US has already implemented checks for passengers arriving at some American airports

Home Office minister Norman Baker has defended the government's decision to screen some people arriving in the UK for the Ebola virus.

Those arriving from areas hit by Ebola face "enhanced screening" at Heathrow, Gatwick and Eurostar terminals.

Ministers initially said there were no plans to screen people arriving from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Mr Baker said the government changed its mind as a result of new advice from the chief medical officer.

Downing Street said passengers would be asked questions and potentially given a medical assessment.

'Extra precaution'

But Gatwick has said it knows nothing about the new measures.

An airport spokesman said: "We've not had anything at all. We're still waiting for Public Health England (to let us know)."

A Heathrow spokesman said it was working with the health body to implement the measures and reassured passengers the risk of a traveller contracting Ebola had been assessed as low.

Eurostar said it was "liaising with relevant authorities to work out how it will be implemented".

Mr Baker said: "I think it's a good reflection on the government that they listened to professional advice from the chief medical officer and are prepared to change their minds."

It comes as Whitehall sources say it is "very unlikely" a British man who died in Macedonia on Thursday could have contracted the disease.

It had been claimed that the man - thought to be 57 - may have had Ebola.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Jovanka Kostovska of the Macedonian Health Ministry has been addressing the media in capital Skopje

The UK Foreign Office had said it was urgently investigating the reports.

The unnamed man was admitted to hospital at 15:00 local time (14:00 BST) and died two hours later, Macedonian authorities said.

A Macedonian government spokesman said the man's travelling companion - also British and 72 according to authorities - said they had travelled directly from the UK to Skopje and had not been to any affected areas.

Dr Brian McCloskey, from Public Health England, said he was aware of the reports but added: "We understand Ebola to be unlikely as the cause of death but will continue to work with partners to investigate."


Image copyright AP

By James Gallagher, health editor, BBC News website

The UK's stance on screening has shifted rapidly.

As recently as two days ago Public Health England was saying firmly there were no plans for screening arrivals.

The argument being there was exit-screening in affected countries, the WHO said it was unnecessary and it would mean screening "huge numbers of low-risk people".

But now there will be "enhanced screening" for arrivals from affected countries.

So what has changed?

The chief medical officer argues concern over rising numbers of cases justifies the move, although it is not clear what assessment of the threat to the UK has changed since Tuesday.

However, some scientists have argued the move is more political than scientific.

What will the screening involve - and will it work?

The outbreak has already killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 7,200 - mostly in West Africa.

People leaving areas affected by the outbreak have been subject to checks for some weeks, although people do not become infectious until they display symptoms.

Earlier this week a Spanish nurse became the first person to contract the deadly virus outside of West Africa.

Ministers had ruled out introducing screening at UK airports, pointing out that government policy was in line with advice from the World Health Organization.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The condition of a Spanish nurse with the virus has worsened, according to the hospital treating her

A statement on the Department of Health's website also said: "Entry screening in the UK is not recommended by the World Health Organization, and there are no plans to introduce entry screening for Ebola in the UK."

But in a statement on Thursday, Number 10 said advice from the chief medical officer was that checks on arrivals would "offer an additional level of protection to the UK".

There are no direct flights to the UK from the affected areas and people tend to fly via Paris and Brussels, BBC health editor Hugh Pym said.

That means border control staff will have to rely on airline data to try to work out where a passenger's journey began, he added.

The new checks - for those arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea - will involve "assessing passengers' recent travel history, who they have been in contact with and onward travel arrangements", Downing Street said.

Passengers could also be subject to medical checks "by trained medical personnel rather than border force staff" and will be given advice on "what to do should they develop symptoms later".

The move was criticised by Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who told Channel 4 News: "It doesn't make sense to only screen limited places."

BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott said the announcement was more about looking like something was being done than stopping the spread of the disease.

'Delay and disruption'

Medical experts say the chances of someone boarding a flight with no symptoms and being contagious by the time they land was "highly, highly unlikely", our correspondent added.

David Mabey, professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said he thought screening was a "mistake", adding he could not "see the point".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There will be a lot of delay and disruption as they do not know who to screen."

The priority should be on testing those who are at risk and become sick, said Professor Mabey.

Money spent on the screening would be "better spent on setting up places where people can go and be tested and telling people where that is", he added.

'Ineffectual tool'

Chris Dye, director of strategy at the WHO, said screening was a "precautionary measure".

"We know the risk of a case of Ebola entering the UK is small and the risk of a case entering the UK while displaying symptoms is even smaller," he told BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast.

"We are talking about a very small risk indeed."

In the US temperature checks and questionnaires were introduced earlier this week for passengers arriving at some airports from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

  • 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.