Measures to screen passengers as they enter the UK from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will be introduced tomorrow, with health secretary Jeremy Hunt saying it is likely the UK will see a “handful” of Ebola cases in the next few months.
Hunt was echoing the phrase used this weekend by chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies.
Heathrow will be the first airport to deploy the new checks – which include asking passengers about their health and possible exposure to the disease, taking temperature and personal details – with Gatwick and Eurostar following soon.
Anyone with a raised temperature will be assessed under the measures, and if necessary taken to hospital. Higher-risk individuals will be contacted on a daily basis.
Any Ebola cases will be taken to the Royal Free Hospital in north London, while additional capacity is avaiable in Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield. People operating the 111 call centres have been briefed to go through Ebola symptoms with potential victims of the disease.
The airports will also feature highly visible information telling people to identify themselves if they are from affected areas.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Hunt said these measures would reach 89 per cent of travellers coming from the region.
Although he said it was “likely a handful of cases” would make their way to the UK in the next few months, Hunt insisted the general risk to the public was low.
He noted that “a great deal of planning” had gone into dealing with potential cases.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called for Hunt to be more precise, claiming that “handful” was not a scientific term. He asked for a full range of figures around available treatment, beds and the number of people that are expected to be screened, as well as a worst case scenario plan.
Hunt told Burnham he did not expect the number of cases in the UK to enter double figures in the next three months, but admitted it was "difficult" to be any more precise.
Ebola: Quick facts
Why is the UK introducing screening for Ebola now?
The UK has upped its response to the threat of Ebola spreading to the UK after cases emerged in Spain and the US, and on the advice of the chief medial officer.
Where has Ebola spread so far?
The main concentration of the disease has been in West Africa, particularly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. However in the last few days it has spread to the US and Spain.
In both cases, the disease spread by people who were infected in West Africa, who then transmitted the disease to health workers. It is not thought the disease has spread beyond the initial infection, although individuals have been quarantined and are under observation.
How many people have died from Ebola?
So far more than 4,000 people have been killed - making it by far the worst outbreak on record. Only two people are thought to have died of Ebola outside West Africa, though this is where both individiuals contracted the disease.
Spanish nurse Teresa Romero Ramos was the first person in Europe to be infected - it is thought, by touching her face with a glove that had come into contact with the disease via a priest she had been treating, who had been repatriated.
In Texas, another female healthcare worker has contracted the disease after treating a Liberian man who had travelled to the US a few days previously. The US' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is holding a press conference later today on the matter.
How is Ebola transmitted?
Ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person or animal.