British personnel will be subjected to “tough” regulations while aboard a medical ship deployed to tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the captain said today.
A team of 750 military personnel are expected to reach Sierra Leone by November, with a Royal Navy hospital ship leaving its moorings in Falmouth Docks, Cornwall, on Friday.
RFA Argus will set sail at high water, loaded with three Merlin helicopters and a crew of around 350, including 80 medics and 80 Royal Marines.
Strict rules to keep the ship “sterile” from Ebola include banning personnel from going ashore on leave during up to three months of deployment.
Royal Marines who leave the RFA Argus for operations in the local community will go through a decontamination process upon their return.
Medics will take their temperatures twice a day and anyone who shows signs of Ebola will be flown to a British treatment clinic in Kerry Town.
Captain David Eagles, 52, of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, admitted the measures were “tough” but necessary to safeguard against Ebola.
“It is a ship that’s there for six months but people will rotate round on a two to three month basis,” Capt Eagles, of Hatt, Cornwall, said.
“No shore leave is unusual, it will be quite tough but I think people will understand. I think people are going to be quite busy.
“We are working to allay fears. The point we have been getting across to our people is that Ebola patients will not be brought aboard Argus so we are a sterile unit from that.”
The ship will act in three capacities in Sierra Leone, where it is expected to remain for six months, to support the Department for International Development.
It will provide three Merlin helicopters to transport equipment in the country, as well as allowing Royal Marines to safely move stores into areas they are required. The 35-year-old former container ship will also act as a hospital for non-battle injuries and diseases for British troops, providing the same level of care as a NHS trauma hospital.
Aboard the ship, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon described it as “the front line in defending Britain from this disease”. “This is a vital mission to save lives in Sierra Leone but also to keep Britain safe,” he said.
“If this outbreak is not kept under control then we will see it spread through Africa, into mainland Europe and the UK.
Screening to counter the threat from Ebola has also started at Britain’s biggest airport amid doubts over how the checks are being enforced.
The first passengers arriving at Heathrow Terminal 1 after taking indirect flights from West Africa have been questioned to establish any potential exposure to the disease, and had their temperature taken.
The system is expected to be extended to Gatwick and St Pancras Eurostar station over the next week.
But Public Health England (PHE) and Border Force officials admitted there is no fixed plan to deal with people who have visited affected countries, but decline to give details or have their temperature taken.