Ebola fears remain despite assurances Britain is ready

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

Medical exercise by 22 Field Hospital at the Army Medical Services Training Centre. Credit: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

By Alok Jha - ITV News Science Correspondent

British authorities say they're ready to handle Ebola, if it should land in this country. But is that message getting out to everyone else?

Passenger screening has already started at Heathrow airport and it'll be rolled out to Gatwick later this week, in a bid to allay public concerns about the entry of the virus into the UK.

But people working on the flights are worried. They say they are lacking information about the spread of the disease and whether or not they are at risk.

A member of cabin crew, who works for a major airline and wanted to remain anonymous, told ITV News that staff were worried:

My colleagues [...] are very concerned there doesn't seem to be much information coming down exactly how we are at risk or if [we are] at risk. Some of our flight attendants have been saying that they are worried about carrying in meal trays. We have often passed items that have got sputum on them and other items on the tray that you have to end up pick up and you have always got the risk of people passing you vomit bags to dispose of.

He said that the cabin crew community want more more direction from government, rather than the assurances of just the airlines. “There is a lack of trust sometimes with what their operators tell them,” he said. He wants guidance from governments, for example, that would compel airlines to provide staff with appropriate gloves when dealing with used food trays or cleaning toilets.

His concerns reflect a wider anxiety about Ebola in the public at large. According to an ITV News poll (carried out by ComRes on more than 2,000 adults in the past week), 55% of the UK population said they were worried about a possible outbreak in this country, which is marginally more than the number worried about the chance of another recession (54%).

And many don’t seem reassured by current measures to protect the country from an Ebola outbreak:

  • Only 35% were confident the government could handle an Ebola outbreak

  • Just 34% thought airport screening would do a good job of keeping the UK

  • Only 32% of people said they would know what to do if they saw someone with symptoms of Ebola

For several weeks now, health experts have been consistent in their message that the UK is ready for any cases that come to this country and they remained so in light of the ITV News poll.

High level isolation apparatus in the High Secure Infectious Disease Unit at The Royal Free Hospital Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

A spokesperson for Public Health England said the Government’s first priority was the safety of the British people.

We are clear that playing our part in halting the rise of the disease in west Africa is by far the most effective way of preventing Ebola infecting people in the UK. In addition we have some of the best public health protection systems in the world and the risk to the UK remains low. The NHS has robust and well tested plans in place to deal with the threat of Ebola. Earlier this month, we carried out a national training exercise to test the NHS response and we also recently began enhanced screening for people travelling from the affected areas. We keep preparations constantly under review to make sure we are safeguarding the public.

Public Health England

Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said his thoughts on the UK’s preparedness were unchanged since he spoke to us last week.

As you know, the UK does what they call simulation exercises on a regular basis, not just for Ebola but for any infectious disease that might come in and begin to spread. So the UK is very prepared should there be a disease that enters - it's also prepared in identifying that disease very rapidly.

He added that there was “a great system of detection of patients who might have Ebola, there's an excellent system of rapid diagnosis and there's a superb system of isolation of patients.”

Experts might feel confident about the Ebola threat but there's a lot more to do to persuade the British public. Having said that, the ITV News poll also showed that the British public seemed assured they were unlikely to actually contract Ebola - only 9% thought that they or a close family member would catch the disease.