Minister backs Ebola screening plan
10 October 2014
Last updated at 06:22
The US has already implemented checks for passengers arriving at some American airports
Home Office minister Norman Baker has defended the government’s decision to screen some people arriving in the UK for the Ebola virus.
Those arriving from areas hit by Ebola face “enhanced screening” at Heathrow, Gatwick and Eurostar terminals.
Ministers initially said there were no plans to screen people arriving from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Mr Baker said the government changed its mind as a result of new advice from the chief medical officer.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said the risk in the UK has not increased and the new measures would “act as an extra precaution”.
Downing Street said passengers would be asked questions and potentially given a medical assessment.
The threat of the disease has not increased, Eric Pickles said
Mr Baker said: “I think it’s a good reflection on the government that they listened to professional advice from the chief medical officer and are prepared to change their minds.”
It comes as Whitehall sources say it is “very unlikely” a British man who died in Macedonia on Thursday could have contracted the disease.
It had been claimed that the man – thought to be 57 – may have had Ebola.
The UK Foreign Office had said it was urgently investigating the reports.
The unnamed man was admitted to hospital at 15:00 local time (14:00 BST) and died two hours later, Macedonian authorities said.
Jovanka Kostovska of the Macedonian Health Ministry has been addressing the media in capital Skopje
A Macedonian government spokesman said the man’s travelling companion – also British and 72 according to authorities – said they had travelled directly from the UK to Skopje and had not been to any affected areas.
Dr Brian McCloskey, from Public Health England, said he was aware of the reports but added: “We understand Ebola to be unlikely as the cause of death but will continue to work with partners to investigate.”
People leaving areas affected by the outbreak have been subject to checks for some weeks, although people do not become infectious until they display symptoms.
Earlier this week a Spanish nurse became the first person to contract the deadly virus outside of West Africa.
The condition of a Spanish nurse with the virus has worsened, according to the hospital treating her
Ministers had ruled out introducing screening at UK airports, pointing out that government policy was in line with advice from the World Health Organization.
A statement on the Department of Health’s website also said: “Entry screening in the UK is not recommended by the World Health Organization, and there are no plans to introduce entry screening for Ebola in the UK.”
But in a statement on Thursday, Number 10 said advice from the chief medical officer was that checks on arrivals would “offer an additional level of protection to the UK”.
There are no direct flights to the UK from the affected areas and people tend to fly via Paris and Brussels, BBC health editor Hugh Pym said.
That means border control staff will have to rely on airline data to try to work out where a passenger’s journey began, he added.
The new checks – for those arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea – will involve “assessing passengers’ recent travel history, who they have been in contact with and onward travel arrangements”, Downing Street said.
Passengers could also be subject to medical checks “by trained medical personnel rather than border force staff” and will be given advice on “what to do should they develop symptoms later”.
The move was criticised by Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who told Channel 4 News: “It doesn’t make sense to only screen limited places.”
By James Gallagher, health editor, BBC News website
The UK’s stance on screening has shifted rapidly.
As recently as two days ago Public Health England was saying firmly there were no plans for screening arrivals.
The argument being there was exit-screening in affected countries, the WHO said it was unnecessary and it would mean screening “huge numbers of low-risk people”.
But now there will be “enhanced screening” for arrivals from affected countries.
So what has changed?
The chief medical officer argues concern over rising numbers of cases justifies the move, although it is not clear what assessment of the threat to the UK has changed since Tuesday.
However, some scientists have argued the move is more political than scientific.
BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott said the announcement was more about looking like something was being done than stopping the spread of the disease.
Medical experts say the chances of someone boarding a flight with no symptoms and being contagious by the time they land was “highly, highly unlikely”, our correspondent added.
In the US temperature checks and questionnaires were introduced earlier this week for passengers arriving at some airports from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
But speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, chairman of the government’s Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens Prof George Griffin said temperature tests were “a very ineffectual tool”.
“We know the clinical course of the disease now very well, a maximum incubation period of 21 days, and fever is only part of the clinical syndrome at the end of that period,” he said.