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Statement by Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt on the Ebola epidemic and the government's response in the UK.
(Check against delivery)
With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the government’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
I shall start with the Chief Medical Officer’s assessment of the current situation in the affected countries. As of today, there have been 4,033 confirmed deaths and 8,399 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola recorded in seven countries, although widespread transmission is confined to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. This number is doubling every three to four weeks. The UN has declared the outbreak an international public health emergency.
UK action abroad
This government’s first priority is the safety of the British people and 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. I would like to pay tribute to the courage of all those involved in this effort, including military, public health, development and diplomatic staff. I would particularly like to commend the over 650 NHS frontline staff and 130 PHE staff who have volunteered to go out to Sierra Leone to help in our efforts on the ground. You are the best of our country and we are deeply proud of your service.
Among the 3 most affected countries, the UK has taken particular responsibility for Sierra Leone, with the US leading on Liberia, and France focusing on Guinea.
British military medics and engineers began work in August on a 92 bed Ebola treatment facility in Kerrytown, including 12 beds for international health workers. In total, we will support more than 700 beds across the country, more than tripling Sierra Leone’s capacity.
With the World Health Organization, we are training more than 120 health workers a week, and piloting a new community approach to Ebola care to reduce, and hopefully stop, the transmission rate. We are also building and providing laboratory services, and supporting an information campaign in-country.
We are now deploying the Royal Navy’s RFA Argus and its Merlin helicopters along with highly-skilled military personnel bringing our military deployment to 750. They will support the construction of the Kerrytown Ebola treatment centre and other facilities, provide logistics and planning support, and help establish and staff a World Health Organization-led Ebola training facility to increase training to over 800 health workers a week.
Taken together, the UK contribution stands at £125 million plus invaluable human expertise and is the second highest bilateral contribution after the US.
We need other countries to do more to complement the efforts of ourselves, the US and France. On 2 October, the Foreign Secretary held an international conference on defeating Ebola in Sierra Leone during which over £100m and hundreds of additional healthcare workers were pledged.
I will now move on to the risks to the general public in the UK.
The Chief Medical Officer, who takes advice from Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, has this morning confirmed that it is likely we will see a case of Ebola in the UK, and this could be a handful of cases over the next three months.
She confirms that the public health risk in the UK remains low and measures currently in place – including exit screening in all 3 affected countries - offer the correct level of protection.
However, while the response to global health emergencies should always be proportionate, she also advises the government to make preparations for a possible increase in the risk level.
So I can today announce the following additional measures will take place:
First, screening. Rapid access to healthcare services by anyone who may be infected with Ebola is important, not only for their own health but also to reduce the risk of transmission to others. While there are no direct flights from the affected region, there are indirect routes into the UK.
So in the next week, Public Health England will start screening UK-bound air passengers, identified by the Border Force, coming on the main routes from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. This will allow potential cases arriving in the UK to be identified quickly and receive access to expert health advice.
These measures will start tomorrow at Heathrow, which receives around 85% of all such arrivals, beginning with Terminal 1. They will be expanded by the end of next week to arrivals into Gatwick and on the Eurostar which connects to Paris and Brussels-bound arrivals.
Passengers will have their temperature taken and complete a questionnaire asking about their current health, recent travel history and whether they might be at potential risk through contact with Ebola patients. They will also be required to provide contact details.
If neither the questionnaire nor the temperature reading raises any concerns, passengers will be told how to make contact with the NHS should they develop Ebola symptoms within the 21 day incubation period, and allowed to continue on their journey. It is important to stress that a person with Ebola is only infectious if they are displaying symptoms.
Any passenger who reports recent exposure to people who may have Ebola, or symptoms, or who has a raised temperature will undergo a clinical assessment and, if necessary, will be transferred to hospital.
Passengers identified as having any level of increased risk of Ebola, but without any symptoms, will be given a PHE contact number to call should they develop any symptoms consistent with Ebola within the 21 day incubation period.
Higher risk individuals will be contacted on a daily basis by Public Health England. Should they develop symptoms, they will have the reassurance of knowing this system will get them first class medical care, as the NHS demonstrated with nurse William Pooley, and the best possible chance of survival.
We expect these measures to reach 89% of travellers we know have come to the UK from the affected region on tickets booked for the UK.
But it is important to note that no screening procedure will be able to identify 100% of the people arriving from Ebola-affected countries, not least because not all passengers leaving the countries will immediately take connecting routes to the UK.
So today I can announce that the government will ensure, working with the devolved administrations, that there is highly visible information displayed at all entry points to the UK asking passengers to identify themselves to staff if they have travelled to the affected region in the last 21 days. This information for travellers will be available by the end of this week.
We are also taking other important measures.
We have tested operational resilience with a comprehensive exercise that took place on Saturday modelling cases in London and the north of England. Local emergency services across England are holding their own exercises this week, and will share lessons learned.
It is vital that the right decisions are made on Ebola following any first contact with the NHS. We have put in place a process for all call handlers on NHS 111 to ask people reporting respiratory symptoms about their recent travel history so appropriate help can be given to higher risk patients as quickly as possible.
The Chief Medical Officer has also issued a series of alerts over recent months to doctors, nurses and pharmacists setting out what to do when someone presents with relevant symptoms. We will also send out guidance to hospital and GP receptionists.
Handling of high risk patients
The international profile of the UK as a favoured destination inevitably increases the risk that someone with Ebola will arrive here.
So, a great deal of planning has also gone into procedures for dealing with potential Ebola patients in the UK, working closely with the devolved administrations.
All ambulances are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). If a patient is suspected of having Ebola they will be transported to the nearest hospital and put in an isolation room. A blood sample will then be sent to Public Health England’s specialist laboratory for rapid testing.
If they test positive for Ebola they will then be transferred to the Royal Free Hospital in north London, which is the UK specialist centre for treating the most dangerous infectious diseases. We also have plans to activate Ebola bed capacity in Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield, making a total of 26 beds available in the UK.
We will always follow medical advice as to whether any measures we adopt are likely to be effective and are a proportionate response to risk. However, I believe that we are among the best and most-prepared countries in the world.
Lastly, we are harnessing the UK’s expertise in life sciences to counter the threat from Ebola. The UK government, alongside the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council, has co-funded clinical trials of a potential vaccine that could be pivotal in the prevention effort. We are actively working with international partners to explore how we might appropriately make further vaccine available.
Finally Mr Speaker we should remember that the international community has shown that if we act decisively we can defeat serious new infectious disease threats such as SARS and pandemic flu.
The situation will get worse before it gets better, but we should not flinch in our resolve to defeat Ebola both for the safety of the British population and as part of our responsibility to some of the poorest countries on the planet.
Our response will continue to develop in the weeks and months to come, guided by advice from the Chief Medical Officer, Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
I commend this statement to the House.