Ebola outbreak: UK officials 'not prepared' to deal with virus arriving at border, union leader warns

Contrary to what Foreign Secretary says, border staff 'don't know what to do or how to protect themselves'

Adam Withnall
Thursday 31 July 2014 08:08

UK border officials feel they are unprepared to deal with the threat of the Ebola virus arriving in Britain, a union leader has said.

It comes after the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond concluded a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra by trying to reassure the public that the disease was "not a significant risk to the UK".

Public Health England has told The Independent that it has been briefing the UK Border Agency, airlines, doctors and Government departments on what needs to happen if a person with Ebola arrives.

But speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight programme, the leader of the Immigration Service Union said her members were very concerned and did not know what they were supposed to do if they suspected the worst.

Lucy Moreton said: "They serve on the front line; they are the first point of contact usually for people coming off an aircraft and the concern is what do they do if they're confronted with someone that doesn't appear well who appears at the border.

"There is no health facility at the border, there is no containment facility and until extremely recently there has been no guidance issued to staff at all as to what they should do."

Ms Moreton said the union had repeatedly received calls from its members asking for further guidance on what to do - and how they could protect themselves - but said she and other union leaders didn't have the answers.

The Ebola virus is now believed to have killed almost 700 people in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as a single case in Lagos, Nigeria that sparked fears of a much wider international outbreak.

Such high numbers of deaths are not believed to be a risk in the UK, where health officials say better standards of infection control would see any suspected patient isolated in a special unit and potentially diagnosed within 24 hours.

So far the only suspected case of Ebola in Britain - a man who returned to Birmingham Airport from Benin City in Nigeria on Monday - has returned negative after testing, the Department of Health confirmed.

Mr Hammond said last night: "The indicators we get is that this is not growing exponentially and that [Ebola] appears to be contained in the worst outbreak areas.

"In terms of the UK, the issue is about the possibility of someone who has contracted the disease in Africa getting sick here. It is not about the disease spreading in the UK. We have different standards of infection control."

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, also attended the Cobra meeting and said the NHS had scientists and doctors with "a lot of experience dealing with dangerous infectious diseases".

Both agreed that the best action the UK could take on Ebola was to help deal with the situation at source in West Africa - which remains dire.

Speaking in an interview with Metro, a doctor from Manchester described how medical practitioners in Sierra Leone were struggling to cope with the pressure.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond chaired the Cobra meeting

Benjamin Black said he had worked 24-hour shifts at a clinic in the southern city of Bo, and that the health infrastructure there was "overwhelmed". Dr Black called for greater support for agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres working in the region.

A number of healthcare workers fighting the outbreak have themselves been struck down with the disease. Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor, Sheikh Umar Khan, described as a "national hero", died on Tuesday, shortly after three nurses working with him also died. An American doctor, Kent Brantly, is in intensive care in Monrovia, Liberia, after contracting the disease.

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