UK Politics

UK should have listened to Ebola warnings, report says

Medecins Sans Frontieres workers Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres warned about Ebola months before the World Health Organisation

The UK government should have paid more attention to warnings about Ebola before a formal emergency was declared, a group of MPs has said in a report.

A Commons committee said the government had been "too reliant" on the World Health Organisation (WHO) system, which declared an emergency in August 2014.

Instead it should have listened to other groups that were warning about Ebola months earlier, the report said.

But the government said its "swift and effective action" saved thousands.

The WHO has since set out plans to reform after health experts said its response to the outbreak was too slow.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in March 2014.

Some 11,315 people are reported to have died from the disease in six countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US and Mali.

'Pick up on warnings'

The Commons' international development committee said groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres had raised the alarm about Ebola months before the WHO did.

The committee said the Department for International Development (DfID) "must ensure it has the ability to listen and react to information and warnings from a range of sources".

Instead it was "still relying too much on improvements on the international system without improving its own ability to independently assess international public health risks", the MPs concluded.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in March 2014

Committee chairman Stephen Twigg said: "The international community relied on WHO to sound the alarm for an international emergency on the scale of Ebola. The organisation's failure to respond quickly enough is now well documented.

"DfID operated effectively once the international response began in earnest.

"However, the department should have been able to pick up on warnings from sources beyond the established international system."

'Reform a priority'

The committee also said it should be made easier for small sums of aid funding to be allocated after hearing from a doctor who was refused £7,500 in the early stages of the outbreak.

An inability to deal with small sums "may have hampered" the response, the report said, cautioning that "playing catch-up" usually proved more expensive.

Mr Twigg added: "It is vital that these lessons are learned as every delay counts. We urge DfID to lead efforts and make this reform a priority."

A DfID spokeswoman said the UK was "at the forefront of tackling this unprecedented epidemic" and this was "months before the first cases of Ebola were confirmed in Sierra Leone.

"We simultaneously pushed the international system to respond more quickly," she said.

"From rapidly deploying NHS medics and military personnel to building treatment centres, our swift and effective action helped save thousands of lives and contain the spread of the disease.

"Our flexible response is now ensuring Sierra Leone can isolate and treat new cases of Ebola before they spread."

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