Three days ago the UK government was still openly resisting the idea of screening inbound passengers for Ebola symptoms (see Ebola surveillance and contingency planning ongoing in UK) - but between public and media pressures to `do something’, and seeing the United States and Canada announce targeted enhanced screening (see Airport Screening Fact Sheet) – the decision to go ahead has finally been made.
While airport screening may be reassuring to the public, many public health experts question the value of these types of interventions, as they did little to prevent the importation of either SARS or the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus (see Why Airport Screening Can’t Stop MERS, Ebola or Avian Flu).
Given the limited scope, and targeted nature of these screenings (as they stand today, anyway) – while I don’t expect them to be terribly effective – I don’t view them as being a complete waste of time, either.
It is possible that some symptomatic cases might be detected and isolated before they can spread the disease, and the contact information gleaned from recent travelers to West Africa might be helpful to public health officials.
Still, no one should be overly reassured by these measures. They have a low probability of ultimately preventing Ebola – or any other infectious disease – from entering a country.
Here then is the statement from UK.GOV.
A Downing Street spokesperson said:
“The UK is continuing to monitor the outbreak of Ebola closely, including the protection of the UK against people travelling here who may be infected.
Airport screening at airports in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has been in place for some weeks to ensure all passengers leaving affected countries are checked.
Further screening has been kept under review throughout this period and advice from the Chief Medical Officer today is that enhanced screening arrangements at the UK’s main ports of entry for people travelling from the affected regions - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - will offer an additional level of protection to the UK.
Enhanced screening will initially be implemented at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Eurostar terminals and 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 rather than Border Force staff. Passengers will also be given advice on what to do should they develop symptoms later.
As the Chief Medical Officer’s advice makes clear, these measures will help to improve our ability to detect and isolate Ebola cases. However, it is important to stress that given the nature of this disease, no system could offer 100% protection from non-symptomatic cases.
It is important to remember that the overall risk to the public in the UK continues to be very low, and the UK has some of the best public health protection systems in the world with well-developed and well-tested systems for managing infectious diseases when they arise. Contingency planning is also underway including a national exercise and wider resilience training to ensure the UK is fully prepared.”
Advice from the Chief Medical Officer
The Chief Medical Officer said:
“In line with international health requirements, exit screening arrangements have already been implemented in the affected countries in west Africa to ensure that any passenger showing signs of Ebola is prevented from leaving the country.
Although the risk to the UK remains low, in view of the concern about the growing number of cases, it is right to consider what further measures could be taken, to ensure that any potential cases arriving in the UK are identified as quickly as possible. Rapid access to healthcare services by someone infected with Ebola is not only important for their health but also key to reducing the risk of transmission to others.
These measures could include a further UK based package of measures to identify and assess the health status of passengers arriving from the affected countries and to ensure that those individuals know what to do should they be taken ill whilst in the UK.
We remain alert and prepared, should an Ebola case be identified here. We have well tested processes in place but anything that means that people are more likely to present early are to be welcomed.”