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Ebola nurse Pauline Cafferkey 'potentially put public at risk', panel told

Published 13/09/2016

The nurse is facing disciplinary action over allegations she concealed her temperature during checks on her return to the UK from Sierra Leone
The nurse is facing disciplinary action over allegations she concealed her temperature during checks on her return to the UK from Sierra Leone

Ebola nurse Pauline Cafferkey "potentially put the public at risk" through her actions as she returned to the UK with the virus, a misconduct hearing has been told.

A disciplinary panel also heard claims the Scottish medical worker's conduct had "undermined" public trust and confidence in the nursing profession.

The allegations were made by a lawyer for the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) on the first day of the hearing in Edinburgh.

But the nurse's legal team pointed to her "previously unblemished record" and insisted the legal threshold for a finding of misconduct against her has not been met.

Ms Cafferkey, 40, was infected with the virus while working in Sierra Leone in 2014 and returned to the UK at the end of December that year.

Accusations that she acted dishonestly during her return to Heathrow were dropped on Tuesday after after the panel ruled there was no reasonable prospect of them being proved.

She remains accused of allowing an incorrect temperature to be recorded during the screening process at the airport and of leaving the screening area at Heathrow without reporting her true temperature.

The NMC claims that "the mischief in this case is that Ms Cafferkey, realising she had an elevated temperature, allowed an incorrect temperature to be entered on her screening form and left the screening area without disclosing to anyone in authority what her true temperature was".

A high temperature is deemed to be an early sign of an infection.

Speaking to the charges, Anu Thompson, representing the NMC, said there was "no question" Ms Cafferkey had been acting for the public good in providing humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone.

But she said the group had a responsibility to ensure it did not expose other people to risk.

"In summary, we say that Ms Cafferkey's conduct potentially put the public at risk and her conduct undermined the trust and confidence the public has in the profession."

Describing the potential risk as "significant", she asked the panel to make a finding that the nurse's fitness to practise is impaired "to protect the public and protect the public interest".

Mrs Thompson said there were significant mitigating circumstances in Ms Cafferkey's case, but told the panel: "The fact that she was suffering from the early onset of the virus cannot absolve her of all responsibility for her conduct, nor can it remove her understanding or knowledge of the disease."

Ms Cafferkey was in attendance at the hearing but did not address the panel during the session.

Joyce Cullen, representing Ms Cafferkey, told the hearing the nurse had been in the hands of medical professionals during the screening process and had not been acting in a professional capacity at the time.

The charge against her "simply does not meet the legal test for serious professional misconduct", the lawyer argued.

She told the panel that, in going to Sierra Leone, Ms Cafferkey, from Cambuslang near Glasgow, had strengthened the reputation of the profession.

Ms Cullen pointed to the fact that, at the time of the screening, Ms Cafferkey was exhausted after completing a 22-hour journey to London.

She was "very likely to be substantially impaired" as a result of exhaustion and the early effects of the Ebola virus, the panel was told.

Ms Cullen referred to Ms Cafferkey's "previously unblemished record" as a registered nurse and said the incident at the centre of the allegations was "very short-lived".

Public confidence would also be undermined by a finding of impairment, Ms Cullen argued.

"In my submission there is no basis for a finding that her fitness to practise is impaired," she told the hearing.

Earlier, the session heard that Ms Cafferkey was among a group of doctors and nurses returning to Heathrow after a six-week deployment to Sierra Leone.

In agreed evidence put before the panel, it was said that screening staff from Public Health England (PHE) at the airport "were not properly prepared to receive so many travellers from at risk countries" and this resulted in the area being described by some of those present as "busy, disorganised and even chaotic".

The hearing was told that a doctor took Ms Cafferkey's temperature and found it to be up to 38.3C (100F).

"Dr 1 says that Registrant A (someone else in the group) stated at this point that she would record the temperature as 37.2 degrees on Ms Cafferkey's screening form and then they would 'get out of here and sort it out'," the evidence states.

The nurse was cleared for onward travel, arrived in Glasgow late in the evening and awoke feeling "very unwell" the following day, December 29 2014. She was diagnosed with Ebola the same day and spent almost a month being treated in an isolation unit at London's Royal Free Hospital.

The volunteer recovered, but had two further admissions to hospital - one with a relapse of the Ebola virus and the other with chronic meningitis.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

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