Ebola crisis grows as airport denies knowledge of screenings

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QUESTIONS have been raised about Government plans to introduce enhanced screening for Ebola at major airports and terminals, after Gatwick said it knew nothing about the measures.

The move has also been criticised by health experts, who said the focus should be on other ways of preventing the deadly disease from spreading in the UK.

Doctors and nurses don protective equipment during training for Operation Gritrock at the training centre in Strensall, York

Doctors and nurses don protective equipment during training for Operation Gritrock at the training centre in Strensall, York

Checks will take place at Heathrow, Gatwick and Eurostar terminals following advice from chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies as the Government comes under fire for delays in responding to the outbreak.

But a spokesman for Gatwick said today that the airport had not been given any instructions about how the screening should be carried out.

“We’ve not had anything at all,” he said. “We’re still waiting for Public Health England (to let us know).”

World Health Organisation (WHO) director of strategy Dr Chris Dye said it was unlikely the screening would detect anyone with Ebola coming into the UK.

“The chances of someone with Ebola turning up in the UK is relatively small,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The chance of someone turning up in the UK showing symptoms of Ebola at the time is even smaller.

“It potentially could prevent a few cases but I suspect the more important impact is that it will hugely increase awareness.”

Downing Street said the tests will be introduced for passengers travelling from the main Ebola-affected regions in west Africa - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - where the death toll has reportedly risen to nearly 4,000, to give Britain an additional level of protection from the highly contagious virus.

The screening will involve assessing passengers’ recent travel history, with whom they have been in contact, and onward travel arrangements, as well as a possible medical assessment conducted by trained medical personnel.

Contingency planning is also under way, including a national exercise to make sure the country is fully prepared.

Conservative MP Rory Stewart also criticised the plans, saying it does not make sense to carry out tests only at certain airports or railway stations.

He told Channel 4 News: “If we’re moving into a situation in which we’re seriously screening for an epidemic, then we need to get it right across all ports of entry.

“It doesn’t make sense to only screen limited places.”

The announcement follows confusion over whether the Government would introduce screening, with conflicting messages coming from Chancellor George Osborne, the Department of Health and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

Mr Osborne said screening would be introduced if medical experts deemed it necessary.

But the Department of Health initially insisted it had no plans for screening, while Mr Fallon said existing Government policy was in line with WHO advice that exit screening was more effective.

The introduction of tests comes after calls for ministers to follow the lead of the United States, which implemented screening at some airports.

MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for screening and welcomed the news but said the Government must learn lessons from its “delay in action”.

He said: “I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement which appears to be based on advice from the chief medical officer. This now places us on the same page as the USA and South Africa, which began screening in April this year.

“We need targeted, enhanced screening to reassure the public and to relieve pressure on the Border Force.

“As to whether more should have been done sooner on this matter, the time for an inquiry is not now, but we must learn lessons from this delay in action.”

The introduction of screening comes as a Briton died in Macedonia with symptoms similar to Ebola, although Public Health England said it believed it was “unlikely” the death was caused by the virus.

Dr Dye warned the outbreak showed no signs of slowing down.

“Our expectation at the WHO is that this may go on for some weeks to come before we can start forcing it down,” he said.

David Mabey, professor of communicable diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the screening was a “complete waste of time”.

“Firstly, there won’t be anyone coming from these (West African) countries because all direct flights have been cancelled,” he said. “Are they going to screen everyone from Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam? That would lead to a lot of delays and disruption.

“Secondly, why would anyone admit that they have been in contact with someone when they’re in a hurry to get through immigration control when they arrive at the airport?

“People will have been screened before getting on flights and may seem to be healthy if they’re not yet showing symptoms.

“And then what will they do if they think they do have Ebola? Lock them up in solitary confinement?”

Prof Mabey said that instead, the Government should be concentrating on increasing awareness of what people should do if they think they might be at risk.

Asked if he thought there would be cases of Ebola in the UK, he said: “I think it’s bound to happen. We have a lot of links with west Africa. There is lots of coming and going so I’m sure there will be a few cases.”