SHAFAQNA – A national exercise to test Britain’s readiness for an Ebola outbreak was carried out yesterday amid growing criticism that British government priorities for dealing with the threat were seriously misplaced.
While the minister for health, Jeremy Hunt, announced – after chairing a simulated meeting of the British government’s emergency Cobra committee as part of the test – that the exercise had been reassuring and “extremely useful”, other politicians and scientists described government plans as “a complete waste of time”.
The eight-hour exercise involved actors simulating symptoms of Ebola with one person “collapsing” in a Gateshead shopping centre, north England, before being placed in isolation at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, and was held as a preamble to the introduction of screening for the virus at major airports and terminals.
But many experts have voiced serious misgivings about the introduction of screening, ordered by prime minister David Cameron as part of the UK’s contingency plan against Ebola, which has killed more than 4,000 people in west Africa.
Prof David Mabey, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the screening was a complete waste of time.
“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.”
This point was backed by virologist Dr Ben Neuman of Reading University, who said there was no “strong scientific case that airport screening will help keep Ebola out of the UK”.
Similarly Professor Tom Solomon, Liverpool University’s head of infection and global health, said the evidence “suggests such measures won’t make a large difference”. An even more trenchant criticism of the government’s emphasis on spotting Ebola victims as they entered Britain was provided from Sierra Leone by Andrew Gleadle, programme director for the International Medical Corps. “What I’d like to see is a little less hysteria in the US and the UK,” he said. “We may get a few isolated cases [in the west] but we’re not going to get an epidemic. We need more focus on west Africa, where the real problem is.”
This point was backed by the children’s charity Plan UK, which said the only “truly effective” way of preventing Ebola reaching Britain was to tackle the crisis in west Africa.
“As the government introduces more measures to try and prevent the arrival of Ebola in this country, it would be fatal to forget that the best way to help the UK is to help west Africa,” said chief executive Tanya Barron.
“This is an outbreak that needs tackling at source, and in order to change the course of the crisis, we mustn’t simply ‘hunker down’ in developed nations. We must break the chain of infection.”
Others have raised doubts about the arrangements for introducing screening checks at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports and at Eurostar rail terminals. A spokesman for Gatwick said that the airport had not been given any instructions about how the screening should be carried out. Labour MP Keith Vaz said the lack of precise information available about the screening was “shambolic”.
It was revealed yesterday that US authorities had begun screening travellers from the three west African countries most affected by Ebola infections – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – at JFK airport in New York, and were expect ed to expand this to Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta later next week.
It was also confirmed that more than 750 UK military personnel and the medical ship RFA Argus were being sent to west Africa to help in the efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak.
“What we are focusing on as a country is taking action right across the board to deal with this problem at source,” David Cameron said yesterday. “What we do is listen to the medical advice and we act on that advice, and that’s why we are introducing the screening processes at the appropriate ports and airports.”
This view was backed by the government’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies. “This vitally important exercise gave a very realistic test of how prepared the system is to deal with a case of Ebola,” she said. “Today has included a variety of scenarios involving personnel from hospitals, ambulance services and local authorities around the country.”
Doctors in Macedonia yesterday ruled out the Ebola virus as the cause of death of a British man in the Balkan country on Thursday.
“We have just received the results from the lab in Hamburg and they are negative for Ebola, which means that the patient did not have the Ebola virus,” said Dr Jovanka Kostovska of the Macedonian health ministry’s commission for infectious diseases.