Many students of politics will be familiar with the quote attributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismar, that ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ A belief in this statement often results in actions which could be considered to be undertaken under the ‘Something has to be seen to be done Act’
The Ebola virus
As the west of Africa continues to be subjected to the ravages of Haemorrhagic Fever (more commonly known as Ebola) the threat of wider spread thanks to international travel appears to have fallen firmly into this category.
After initially denying the possibility (or at least minimising it to an inconsequential risk) of international transfer the possibility has now been recognised and a distinct jerking of knees followed apace.
It has become increasingly clear that the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is still far from under control. Those treating the outbreak remain under significant risk and new cases have been reported in the United Kingdom, Germany, America and Spain.
With this news, the government in the United Kingdom has come under pressure to introduce screening on those entering the UK. Despite initial reassurances that there are no direct flights from the affected regions to the UK, the government has now announced it will be introducing screening, initially at Heathrow and Gatwick.
Airport Health Screening
However, the screening process does appear to be more an effort to appease the public clamour for action rather than something with concrete preventative measures likely to reduce transmission risks.
The screening process (less extensive that the digital thermal imaging used for H1N1 bird flu) is currently relying on people self-identifying as providing a potential risk of transmission. I can’t imagine many people at the end of an international flight volunteering to be held in a medical processing facility at the end of a long flight?
Given that the initial symptoms of Ebola are flu like symptoms, I can only imagine the number of stag-do’s returning on easy-jet (other airlines are available) to find they are exhibiting exactly these symptoms. Of course the multiple posters asking travellers ‘Do you have Ebola’ are likely to be immediately effective at identifying new transmission risks.
More challengingly, the incubation period for Ebola is roughly seven days, so (although not infectious at this point) it would be entirely possible for travellers infected but not yet showing symptoms to pass through any checks without raising any suspicion. Assuming that anyone travelling was exhibiting symptoms, they may be taken aside to determine an appropriate course of action, but nothing has been said about dealing with the cabin crew and fellow passengers who may have been on the same flight.
The reassurance that airport security checks presents would appear to me to be entirely superficial and mere lip-service to be seen to be doing something – however ineffectual that may actually be.