No resumption of direct flights to London from Freetown

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 October 2014

Gambia Bird 1The British government has today announced body temperature screening measures for all flight passengers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea arriving at British airports.

The new measures will start tomorrow at Heathrow Airport, where more than 80% of all passengers from the three most affected countries arrive.

After several days of intense debate in the UK as to the efficacy and effectiveness of screening at British Airports, the government has finally gave in to public pressure, for steps to be taken to minimise the risk of Ebola arriving on the shores of Britain.

The government says that the new measures are being taken, after receiving advice from the country’s Chief Medical Officer.

The assessment of the Chief Medical Officer on the current situation in West Africa, the British government says, is based on the fact that 4,033 people have died of the Ebola virus, with 8,399 confirmed, probable and suspected cases so far recorded.

“This number is doubling every three to four weeks. The UN has declared the outbreak an international public health emergency.”

Speaking in the British Parliament this morning, the UK Health Minister – Jeremy Hunt outlined the new measures that come into force tomorrow at Heathrow Airport, based on “the risks to the general public in the UK.”

This is what he said:

“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.

Jeremy Hunt - UK Health Minister“So I can today announce the following additional measures will take place (Photo: Health Minister – Jeremy Hunt):

“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.

gatwick“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.”

Gambia BirdBut tonight hundreds of Sierra Leoneans stuck in London and Freetown, awaiting the resumption of direct flights by Gambian Bird Airlines this weekend, are shocked at the decision of the British government to postpone indefinitely, the resumption of direct flights.

A British Sierra Leonean consultant working in Freetown and scheduled to travel back to the UK on Friday is distraught. She told the Sierra Leone Telegraph; “I feel trapped, confused and uncertain about my return to the UK, where my husband, child and family are all waiting desperately for my return.”

In response to the British government decision, Gambian Bird Airlines today issued the following statement:

“Further to our statement of 01 October, announcing resumption of direct service by Gambia Bird Airlines between London and Freetown from 17 October 2014, we regret to announce that the airline have been forced to suspend service on this route until further notice.

“We would like to clarify that the airline had received the necessary permits and permissions to operate on the route again from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and had fully intended to restart service to Sierra Leone as of the above date. However, it would seem a shift in policy by the UK Government was taken to withdraw these permissions, barely a week before service was to resume.

“We consider the above decision disappointing. Our view was that the need for a direct commercial service was clear from several standpoints. It would provide far easier, cost-effective access for humanitarian assistance to Sierra Leone in the form of Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) volunteers, medical professionals and supplies to combat the Ebola epidemic that the country is currently suffering.

“It would allow UK based businesses and workers who are still trying to access the country and contribute to boosting its badly damaged economy a reliable means of doing so.

Gambiabird logo“Gambia Bird had put in place extremely stringent health and safety procedures to protect both passengers and crew, combined with thorough checks of passengers at Lungi International Airport prior to exiting Sierra Leone.

“Public Health England was consulted throughout the planning process and was satisfied that measures being taken were adequately robust. It has also been repeatedly stated that Ebola could be dealt with quickly and efficiently in the UK due to an excellent health system – a luxury not enjoyed by afflicted Sierra Leoneans – along with a set of rigorous procedures to identify, treat and contain any cases.

“Much has been published and broadcast in recent days regarding the implementation of screening incoming passengers at UK airports, who are flying in from affected regions. The banning of a direct service, where tracking and screening of passengers is relatively easy, while continuing to allow passengers connecting with a variety of airlines through a variety of cities, including Brussels and Casablanca, makes little sense.

“Ultimately this decision punishes Sierra Leone and West Africa in general. As we have proudly served the Sierra Leonean community in the UK for so many years, it saddens us that they have been let down in this way.”

But critics of the this new screening policy at British Airports and the banning of direct flights from Freetown, say that the best way of protecting British public from contracting the virus is to speed up and increase support given to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to help eradicate the virus.

Sierra Leone needs more than 3,000 beds, 12 new treatment centres, and 2,000 extra medical staff to help tackle the virus across the country.  750 British soldiers and a military medical ship will not be arriving in Sierra Leone until possibly the end of the month.

In the meantime, Ebola continues to kill hundreds of people a week in Sierra Leone, with thousands of new cases expected in the next three weeks.

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