Red Cross members carry the body of an Ebola victim in Monrovia, Liberia, last year / Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Exclusive: Three in four people would not shake hands with them

Three in four British people would not shake hands with a healthcare worker recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa, a survey by the Red Cross has found.

Despite it being impossible to catch Ebola by ordinary day-to-day contact such as sitting next to someone or shaking hands, many people who have been working to end the outbreak have faced stigma upon their return, the charity said.

Some have had colleagues raise concerns about them returning to work, and a small number even avoided seeing their families at Christmas because relatives were worried about the risk of infection.

A survey carried out by the Red Cross found that while four in five support and admire British healthcare workers who have gone to West Africa, more than half worry that they will spread the virus in the UK.

Only one in three said they would be willing to speak face-to-face to someone recently returned from an Ebola-affected country, three in 10 would not sit next to them on public transport and only 23 per cent said they would shake hands.

Ebola can only be transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is already showing symptoms. Healthcare workers returning from Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea are screened for symptoms at the airport and monitored by phone for 21 days – the longest possible incubation period for the virus. They are also restricted from seeing patients for 21 days.

Despite reassurances that an outbreak in the UK is extremely unlikely, public fear remains high, the survey suggests. Last week a military healthcare worker became only the third British person to be infected by Ebola since the outbreak began. She is being treated at the Royal Free Hospital in north London. Another UK healthcare worker is being monitored at the hospital after a ‘needle stick injury’ in Sierra Leone that may have exposed them to the virus.

Hundreds of British military staff, NHS volunteers and charity workers have worked on the frontline of the Ebola crisis, most of them in Sierra Leone.

A volunteer in protective suit sprays disinfectant outside a home near Freetown, Sierra Leone (Getty)

Pete Jones, the Red Cross’ Ebola response manager said that as long as someone was symptom free, they were almost certainly not contagious, so there was no need to avoid contact with recently returned health workers.

“It’s clear that fear surrounding Ebola is high,” he said. “Although this is understandable given how deadly we know the virus can be, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that the best way to reduce risk to the UK public is to focus on wiping out Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – which we are still some way off achieving.”

Ebola, which has killed more than 10,100 people in West Africa in the past year, is still infecting more than 100 people every week in the affected countries. A huge increase in international aid last autumn has brought down the rate of infection, but experts predict it will be months until the virus is completely brought under control.

David Ross, who worked for six weeks as head nurse at the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kono, Sierra Leone, and returned to the UK in February, said he and colleagues had encountered stigma.

“You never know what a member of the public’s response is going to be,” he said. “When you tell someone where you’ve been sometimes there’s fear, they go bright red, and you have to tell them not to worry – ‘I’m not going to kiss you, we’re not sharing bodily fluids!’ The British public are pretty well-sensitised to it, but there is a certain ‘not in my backyard’ approach from some: ‘Ebola is fine if it’s over there, but if you bring it back…’”

A Public Health England spokesperson said: “It is important that the public, patients and colleagues of healthcare volunteers returning to practice in the UK are aware robust, well-tested processes are in place to ensure this happens safely. Also, that the public is reassured you can’t catch Ebola simply by sitting next to someone, touching a surface they have touched or even shaking hands. The overall risk of Ebola to the general public remains very low in the UK.”