Enhanced screening will begin this week in the UK’s biggest airport after the Health Secretary has warned that the deadly virus may hit England in January.
Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative MP for South West Surrey and current Health Secretary, has stated that the screenings will begin at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 and will then be expanded to cover Gatwick airport and Eurostar rail terminals by the end of next week. This comes following the death toll topping 4,000 in Africa over the weekend. Hunt warned the House of Commons it was “likely” that Ebola will be seen in the UK and a “handful” of cases could be confirmed in the next three months.
The screenings, monitoring and questionnaires will allow for 89% of people to travel to the UK from the worst affected regions; Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Hunt has also warned that due to these new restrictions that these checks will be carried out on those who have tickets booked to fly directly to the UK from those infected countries. From now on the only flights available will be indirect routes into the UK.
A spokesperson from Heathrow made a statement saying “We would like to reassure passengers that the Government assesses the risk of a traveller contracting Ebola to be low. We would encourage anybody with individual questions or concerns to refer to guidance from Public Health England and the Foreign Office.” The statement that the risk remains low is set to calm some of the hysteria which has surrounded the Ebola outbreak. More importantly the checks are being used solely as a precaution.
When Hunt speaking to the House of Commons said “This Government’s first priority is the safety of the British people. Playing our part in halting the rise of the disease in West Africa is the single most important way of preventing Ebola affecting people in the UK.
“In the next week, Public Health England will start screening and monitoring UK bound air passengers identified by the Border Force coming on to the main routes from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. This will allow potential Ebola virus carriers arriving in the UK to be identified, tracked and given rapid access to expert health advice should they develop symptoms.”
The actions being taken by the government are appropriately serious thus far. Considering that a chance of widespread infection appears to be very low the measures taken to prevent the spread in Africa can be seen as both humanitarian and self-interested. The current model, which includes the airport and Eurostar checks, will drastically reduce the potential for infection.
Mr Hunt said current advice suggested there will be fewer than 10 cases of Ebola in the UK over the next three months. Even with so few cases being forecast the NHS has readied itself for cases to emerge by increasing containment units for Ebola patients in Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield, to make a total of 26 beds available. If a person is infected there have been contingencies put in place to move them from one of these facilities to Royal Free Hospital in north London, the UK’s specialist centre for treating the most dangerous infectious diseases.
As for tackling the problem in Africa the Prime Minister revealed plans to spend £125 million to tackle Ebola. Mr Cameron said “Not only are we doing more than almost any other country in the world to deal with this problem at source in Sierra Leone and other countries, we are also taking very vigorous steps here to make sure we keep our people safe.”
There has been much hyperbole and hysteria surrounding the Ebola outbreak but these checks and precautions should make the eventuality of an Ebola infection in the UK to be minimal. It is encouraging to see that the government has taken such an active role in preventing the spread into this country but they are also making plans to help deal with the problem at source in Africa. This may well stop the spread of this deadly virus and could save countless lives. The response has been swift we shall have to see if the results match the action.