A doctor who worked in Sierra Leone with the British nurse being treated for Ebola has accused authorities of needlessly cutting costs by sending volunteers home from Heathrow on public transport.
Dr Gordon Gancz said it was a “silly” and “plain daft” decision to allow the NHS team returning from Sierra Leone to continue their journeys on trains, buses and internal flights – rather than provide private taxis.
Returning health workers had been told that once home they should avoid crowded places – included taking public transport – for 21 days after that.
Officials from Public Health England (PHE) are trying to trace more than 100 passengers who flew with Pauline Cafferkey on two flights – including an internal flight from heathrow to Glasgow where the nurse lives.
Miss Cafferkey, 39, is currently being treated for Ebola at a specialist isolation unit at the Royal free Hospital in north London. She was flown back to London from Glasgow on an RAF transport plane on Tuesday. The hospital is not disclosing details of her condition.
The Ebola screening process is now under review after complaints that the system put in place at Heathrow by Public Health England was “shambolic”.
It has emerged that Miss Cafferkey had complained of feeling unwell on arrival at the airport but after her temperature was checked seven times and found to be normal she was allowed to carry on with her journey on public transport.
The decision to allow Miss Cafferkey and the other volunteers returning from Sierra Leone is also now coming under stinging attack.
Dr Gancz, an Oxford GP who has remained in Sierra Leone, told The Telegraph: “It is very silly to say it’s OK to get home on public transport but then say you cannot use it after that. That’s just plain daft. It doesn’t make any sense and obviously wasn’t thought through.
“I suspect they were trying to save money by sending people home by public transport. It is completely mixed messages. It sounds like cost saving. It would have been expensive to send everybody home in a private car. Someone in Public Health England has not got that one right. They have alarmed the public unnecessarily.”
Dr Gancz claimed the treatment of frontline staff returning from Sierra Leone was in stark contrast to Public Health England laboratory staff who, he claims, were provided with taxis when they were sent home on Christmas Eve.
Dr Gancz flew out with Miss Cafferkey and another 28 members of the team in November following a ten-day training course at an army base. Half the team, including Miss Cafferkey, were sent to Save the Children’s Ebola treatment centre in Kelly Town while Dr Gancz worked at another hospital in Port Loko, where he remains until handing over to a new team.
“Pauline is a quiet, responsible person,” said Dr Gancz.
On Tuesday, Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, said the procedures put in place for the screening of health workers returning to the UK are now under review – but insisted it was right to send people home by public transport if they did not show symptoms of the disease.
She said: “We regularly keep under review what we are doing because this is a new process. Clearly queuing and things like that are unacceptable and we will review.
“But we will let people who are well travel because they will not infect the public.
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She added: “[Miss Cafferkey] was well. She had no symptoms. Her temperature was within the acceptable range. She would not be transmitting the virus, therefore she was cleared as fit to fly.”
Miss Cafferkey, a public health nurse at Blantyre Health Centre in South Lanarkshire, flew to Glasgow on Sunday night and then took a taxi from the airport to her home. Save the Children said on Tuesday it had ordered its own investigation at its Ebola Treatment Centre in Kelly Town to ensure staff are not at risk of contracting the fatal disease.
Michael von Bertele, Save the Children’s humanitarian director, said: “I would say that protection, if people adhere to the protocols, is of a very high standard but … nothing is risk-free, particularly when dealing with a disease like Ebola.”
He added: “I have ordered an investigation and started that already. It’s really important for us to try and understand whether it was a failure of training, of protection, of procedure, or indeed whether she contracted it in some incidental contact within the community, because our workers don’t just work inside the red zone, which is a very high-risk area, they do also have contact – although we are very, very careful in briefing people to avoid personal contact – outside of the treatment centre.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “We have been clear – this person was tested as part of the screening process at Heathrow and, as with all health workers, she was advised to contact PHE if she had any concerns. She did this, while still at Heathrow, and went through a further six temperature checks.
“Her temperature was in acceptable ranges and she was cleared for onward travel, with the advice that if she did start to feel unwell, she should contact health authorities.
“After this person got home, she alerted health authorities that she was experiencing symptoms and was admitted to hospital for tests.
“Naturally, we will be reviewing what happened and the screening protocols, and if anything needs to be changed it will be.”
A Public Health England spokeswoman said: “Each returning worker is responsible for their own travel after arrival at a UK airport. Public Health England has never provided taxis for onward travel of returning workers.
“Public Health England guidance states that all returning workers who have provided direct treatment for people with Ebola should avoid long-distance travel where they cannot easily and rapidly obtain medical help if they become unwell.
“People infected with Ebola can only spread the virus to other people once they have developed the symptoms of Ebola. Anyone displaying symptoms at screening would not have been allowed to travel.”