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'No plans' for UK entry Ebola tests

People suffering from the Ebola virus sit under a tree at Makeni Arab Holding Centre in Makeni, Sierra Leone (AP)
People suffering from the Ebola virus sit under a tree at Makeni Arab Holding Centre in Makeni, Sierra Leone (AP)

Health officials have revealed there are no plans to screen travellers entering the UK for the deadly Ebola virus, as more than 100 Army medics prepare to travel to Sierra Leone to help tackle the epidemic.

Public Health England (PHE) said the overall risk of the virus to the UK remains "low" and the country has "robust, well-developed and well-tested NHS systems for managing unusual infectious diseases".

It comes after a Spanish nurse contracted Ebola in the first known transmission outside west Africa.

A PHE spokesman said: "There are no plans to introduce entry screening for Ebola in the UK. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low-risk people.

"PHE has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK."

Dr Brian McCloskey, director of global health at PHE, said: "UK hospitals have a proven record of dealing with imported infectious diseases. If an Ebola case is repatriated to, or detected in, the UK they would receive appropriate treatment in an isolation unit, with all appropriate protocols promptly activated."

Personnel from 22 Field Hospital, normally based in York, are expected to sent on their humanitarian operation to west Africa within the next few weeks.

They will staff a field hospital set up specifically to treat medics who have caught the disease, not members of the general public, and will operate a 12-bed facility.

The medics have been undergoing an extensive training exercise in full protective suits, with simulated casualties in make-up, at Strensall Barracks, York. The exercise which is expected to last two weeks has been running for 13 hours every day.

Casualties with symptoms or suspicion of the Ebola virus, complete with realistic make-up and prosthetic veins, present themselves to the teams who are dressed in full protective plastic suits and face masks.

An Army spokeswoman said: "They are going through all their procedures and getting atuned to wearing their personal protective equipment, working in quite hot temperatures.

"The training centre, which was geared up to be a replica of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, can vary the temperature and it is warm in there today.

"The casualties come in and the medics test their procedures and working through using their protective equipment."

The unprecedented Ebola outbreak this year has killed more than 3,400 people in West Africa, and become an escalating concern to the rest of the world.

British nurse William Pooley, who contracted the virus in Sierra Leone, survived after he was treated at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said the Government was continuing to keep the issue of tighter travel restrictions under review after a Spanish nurse contracted Ebola, and three others were placed under quarantine, at a Madrid hospital.

She told BBC News: "It doesn't change the assessment of the risk to the UK.

"But what it does show is why we're right to be working with governments as we are in Sierra Leone to help them combat this disease where it's spreading so rapidly now."

Meanwhile, the chairman of PHE said the UK was well prepared should any further cases of Ebola enter the country.

Professor David Heymann, professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, urged health workers to be "suspicious" of any signs of fever from people who have visited the region.

"The UK has already had a case and illustrated it has excellent protection for health workers," Prof Heymann said.

"The UK has what is necessary in place. The best advice for health workers is always be prepared.

"You should expect a case anywhere in the world and you should be prepared.

"Trying to set up border controls is not the answer. It's a false security.

"For health workers, they should be suspicious if someone has a fever or the early signs of Ebola and has just returned from West Africa."

Prof Heymann said the suggestion that Ebola could become airborne was "irresponsible" because no virus transmitted by bodily fluids had ever mutated to airborne transmission.

It follows comments from Anthony Banbury, the chief of the UN's Ebola mission, who told the Telegraph there was a "nightmare" chance that Ebola could become airborne if the epidemic is not brought under control fast enough.

Armed Forces minister Mark Francois visited the exercise and said afterwards the aim was to reassure foreign health professionals that they could volunteer to fight ebola knowing they would receive excellent treatment if they contracted the virus.

He said: "The critical point is to have a world class medical facility available in Sierra Leone that can give other medical workers from around the world comfort, that if they were to become infected, they could go there and get the best medical treatment that we can provide."

The aim was for Save the Children to run the facility once it was functioning well, he said.

Lt Col Alison McCourt, the unit's commanding officer, said the operation would be challenging, especially following the news from Spain that a nurse had contracted ebola.

"It would be wrong for me to comment on that," she said. "What I can say is that the training that my personnel are receiving and the personal protective equipment that we will be using minimises that risk as far as practically possible.

"Our staff will know the dangers that they face, they will have been specifically trained to face those dangers whereas it is possible that other health care workers just working in routine departments within a hospital may not have had that equipment available to them."

Private Kate Owen, a combat medic, said the experience of donning her protective suit and working in hot conditions had been "really beneficial".

She said: "The conditions are going to be quite arduous, but being in the Army, we are quite used to adapting to our environment."

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