This may surprise many people who favour strong borders and putting British people first, but the government’s decision, on the advice of the Member of Parliament Keith Vaz, to screen for Ebola at UK airports: is absurd. It may even be dangerous.
Here are some of the following reasons the plans are so flawed:
- It’s not “screening”. Checking someone’s temperature is not screening. If it worked we’d have it now to screen for illnesses like malaria in travellers returning from the third world. We don’t because it isn’t remotely effective.
- Screening tests have to be good at picking those with illnesses and excluding those without them. A raised temperature could be from pretty much anything, and Ebola incubates for up to three weeks, during which time there’s no fever. Same for malaria as it happens…
- What plan is there people with raised temperatures? Are we going to quarantine every one with a fever in category four isolations beds? We have two in the country, with about four more on the way. There is no doctor I know who would kick a patient out of hospital with a slightly raised temperature after coming back from West Africa.
- There’s no cure, there isn’t even an effective medicine easily available outside of a few experimental treatments. There’s no point screening anyone when early treatment isn’t going to stop the disease getting worse. There’s no advantage to screening over simply watching and waiting for people to develop symptoms and then treating them as needed.
- Same goes for GP practices and hospitals. Unless the government has truck loads of personal protective equipment for health care workers to a category four standard the NHS is NOT equipped for Ebola. One GP told me, “They have sent us letters to make us aware of symptoms and who to contact if we think a patient might have Ebola. By that point I will already be infected. What bloody good is that?”
- There is no scope whatsoever for discriminating those who have arrived from West Africa and those who have sat next to someone from West Africa when they fly to the UK via a European or African hub airport. Screening will miss huge numbers of people. This is why banning flights from Ebola affected countries is completely pointless.
- Nothing can be worse in a major transport hub for spreading infectious diseases rather delaying people leaving. Slowing down traffic inside Heathrow is the last thing that’s needed, mingling time is what Ebola just loves.
So what should we do? We could start by cutting down easily identified risks of transmission and be able to contact trace anyone entering the UK. So we have to clamp down even harder on illegal immigration where such tracing is impossible. Poor people, crammed together, in lorries and containers for days at a time are far more likely to spread Ebola than affluent passengers whose food and water is prepared hygienically for them on a flight. That should be obvious.
Stopping the ridiculous bushmeat trade centred on London and Paris should be another obvious strategy. Rather than banning people, banning any luggage except one item of hand luggage (Ryanair’s ahead of the game here) and subjecting hand luggage to inspection would shut down a major source of bushmeat smuggled into Britain that would remain infectious for much longer than infected travellers (who’d be either treated or die pretty quickly).
SARS caused economic havoc and panic, but even though it was spread through the air, led to a small number of cases. Ebola has hit thousands but West Africa’s social situation (technically referred to a mess) has doubtless made it far far worse.
The way in which Ebola is spread and the natural history of the infection should bring airport screening into question, especially given providing frontline NHS staff with protection is money undoubtedly better spent.
The effect this will have on our aviation industry hasn’t been considered – but it will be severe.