The Cameron government said on Thursday (9 October) that security would start screening passengers entering the UK through London’s two main airports, and the Eurostar rail link with Europe, for possible cases of the Ebola virus.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates Ebola has killed over 3,800 people in Western Africa. Earlier this week, a Spanish nurse became the first person known to have caught the virus outside Africa.
That, combined with London’s status as a global transport hub, has raised the level of public concern about the risk of the disease spreading to Britain, leading to calls from some politicians for the government to step up its border defences.
“Enhanced screening will initially be implemented at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Eurostar terminals,” a statement from Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said.
“(It) will involve assessing passengers’ recent travel history, who they have been in contact with and onward travel arrangements as well as a possible medical assessment, conducted by trained medical personnel.”
Scientists have used Ebola disease spread patterns and airline traffic data to predict a 75% chance the virus could be imported to France by October 24, and a 50% chance it could hit Britain by that date.
The government said the overall risk to the Britain remained low, but that the additional screening had been recommended by the country’s chief medical officer as a way to improve detection and isolation of Ebola cases.
Ebola can take as long as three weeks before victims show symptoms, at which point the disease becomes contagious and can be spread through contact with bodily fluids such as blood or saliva.
On Wednesday, the US government ordered five airports to start screening passengers from West Africa for fever. Canada said it was taking similar measures.
Public Health England (PHE), the government body that deals with protection against infectious disease, had earlier warned that screening is not fully effective at catching cases because symptoms take time to develop and are not unique to Ebola.
“Screening at borders sets up a security that is sometimes dangerous because then people think the solution is there,” David Heymann, chairman of Public Health Englandc told Sky TV.
Earlier this week, PHE said there were no plans to introduce any form of entry screening, citing advice from the WHO.
The Ebola epidemic, the worst since the disease was discovered in 1976, has killed thousands of people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria and has also spread to Senegal.
Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever spread through the blood, sweat or vomit of those infected, making those working directly with the sick among the most vulnerable to the disease.
The WHO believes it will take six to nine months to contain and may infect up to 20,000 people.
In Europe, scientists have used Ebola disease spread patterns and airline traffic data to predict a 75% chance the virus could be imported to France by October 24, and a 50% chance it could hit Britain by that date.
A case was diagnosed in Spain early October. The European Commission asked for "explanations" from Madrid about the circumstances surrounding the infection of a nurse who was in contact with one of two ill Spanish priests, who died of the disease in Madrid.
- 10 Downing Street: Ebola update: Chief Medical Officer advice on UK screening (9 Oct. 2014)
- 10 Downing Street: Ebola virus: UK government response