Ebola crisis: Don’t panic, as Corporal Jones used to say…

“We shall fight them at the airports, Sir”: but questioning passengers won’t be much good

Plans were unveiled this week for a new film version of the TV sitcom “Dad’s Army”, with a cast of modern actors who seem tailor-made to update Walmington-on-Sea’s finest. Blake Harrison, 29, who plays the dim-witted Neil Sutherland in the comedy The Inbetweeners, will play Private Frank “Stupid Boy” Pike. The excellent Danny Mays, who played a drug dealer in the film Shifty, will be the black market spiv Walker. And Sir Tom Courtenay will take over Clive Dunn’s role as the dotty Corporal Jones, barking out the show’s signature catchphrase of “Don’t panic!”

Personally, I always found Jonesy got on my nerves after a bit, just as he got on Captain Mainwaring’s. But I do think it’s high time we stopped panicking about another invasion that seems to be imminent on these shores. Yes, Ebola.

Judging from some of the more excitable reporting in the last few days, you would think the virus was threatening Britain from all sides, just like the arrows showing Hitler’s armies in the Dad’s Army opening titles. As Jonesy’s gloomy Scottish sidekick, Private James Frazer, would no doubt put it:  “We’re all doomed…”

Already, we have signs of doctors might term as classic knee-jerk reaction. Having previously insisted that no such measures were necessary, the Government has now said that anyone travelling into Britain from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea will be questioned upon arrival. This is despite the fact that Ebola has a three week incubation period, meaning that such passengers may not have any sign of the virus so far. And despite the fact that anyone wanting to avoid such checks need only fly to another European country first and then come in unchecked from there.

The government insists that questioning people will still help to “detect and isolate” potential Ebola cases. But as Professor David Mabey, a doctor specialising in infectious diseases at the London School of Tropical Medicine, told this newspaper, anybody who considers themselves likely to be at risk will probably just… lie. As he put it: “If last week your aunt died of Ebola but you feel fine, are you going to be honest when you get to the airport and risk being detained and missing your holiday?”

Have you had sex with an Ebola sufferer? And if so, would you admit it?

I can vouch for that view, having filled in just such a questionnaire when leaving Liberia last month after a reporting trip to cover the Ebola outbreak. On the form I was handed at Monrovia airport, one of the things I was asked was: “Have you recently had sex with anyone suffering from Ebola?”

I hadn’t, as it happened, but in the unlikely event that I had, I’m pretty sure I would have simply lied. As daft official questions go, it was up there with the one on the US visa forms that asked if you had any connection to the Nazi Party of Germany (1939-45), or whether you have participated in acts of genocide.

That trip to Liberia has also given me a few other notes of perspective on the Ebola crisis. For one thing, it’s not the case that everyone out there is wandering around, Zombie-like, about to drop dead at any minute. There are areas where there have been high concentrations of deaths, yes, but we are talking mainly in the poorest slum neighbourhoods, where the lack of any functioning sanitation gives the virus plenty of scope to spread. For visiting reporters, visiting such slums falls into the realm of acceptable risk – as long as you take relevant precautions, the only real danger you run is if someone suffering from the virus wanders up and spits or coughs on you. No, you can’t guarantee it won’t happen. But it’s certainly no greater than the chances of getting shot or bombed while visiting somewhere like Iraq.

That, however, hasn’t stopped a great many news organisations refusing to send their staff to cover the Ebola crisis – most notably the BBC. Apart from some fine reporting by Tulip Mazumdar, who followed MSF around in Guinea back in June, the corporation refused to send its international staff when the outbreak first became big news, fearing the risk of infection.

On the radio a while back, I heard a Beeb exec explaining that it was simply too risky to do so, and that Ms Mazumdar had only been allowed in on the condition that she went with her own medic. The exec added that the health and safety assessment beforehand had been lengthy ‘even by BBC standards’. Which, given what I hear about the Beeb’s health and safety regulations – this is an organisation that instructs its staff how to walk through revolving doors safely – meant it probably took several days. As such, the corporation has been hamstrung its reporting of a major story in a part of the world where it is one of the few outlets that has strong coverage.

We’re all doomed… John Laurie as Private James Frazer

To be fair, there is something about viruses, especially ones with incubation periods of several weeks, that alarm office health and safety managers in news organisations. They have to worry not just about the reporter concerned getting infected, but about the risk they pose to an office of several hundred or thousand people when they get home.

Once again, though, there is no need to panic about this either. The guidelines I followed were the same as those used by humanitarian aid workers. Upon returning home, you register with Public Health England, and then, essentially, continue your life as normal. Ebola is only infectious once one starts getting symptoms – temperature, vomiting, diarrhoea etc. And even then, the infection risk is much less when the symptoms are less advanced. There is no reason one cannot go to work, interact with family and so on. The only must-do is to let the authorities know if one starts to feel ill.

This advice was also reiterated to me by an eminent disease control expert who I sat next to on the plane home from Liberia last month, who had just finished a lengthy stint working in an Ebola treatment clinic, and who was heading back to his office the next day. As it happened, a BBC producer had been in touch with him to do an interview. But when he mentioned that he’d been working at a high-risk clinic, the Beeb decided it wasn’t safe to send a broadcast crew to meet him. To paraphrase Captain Mainwaring: “You stupid boy…”

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