Ebola outbreak: UK response undermined by systematic delay, warn MPs


Britain's lack of readiness for an infectious disease emergency was laid bare by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, MPs have claimed.

The "heroic" efforts of health worker volunteers who sometimes risked their own lives to help victims of the disaster, were praised in a report from the Science & Technology Select Committee.

But the MPs said Britain's response to the crisis, like that of other countries, was undermined by "systematic delay".

Nicola Blackwood, who chairs the committee, said: "The Government's emergency response procedures were triggered far too late in the day, Ebola test kits were developed and trialled, but not deployed, and the initial response was ad hoc and unco-ordinated.

"A combination of hard work and chance prevented Ebola spreading further than it did, but a future epidemic may be less containable and spread within the UK as well as overseas."

She warned: "We must take the opportunity now to ensure that the UK is not caught unprepared when the next disease emergency strikes. Lives can be lost for every day of delay."

Delays were seen at every stage of the Government's response, said the report, from escalating Public Health England's disease surveillance to convening the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). The latter body is chiefly responsible for channelling scientific advice to the Government in the event of an emergency.

Sage was not convened until October 2014 - three months after the Government's "Cobra" emergency response committee met.

In future, a recommendation from the Government's chief scientist should be enough to trigger the convening of Sage, said the report.

Neither the UK nor the wider international community were sufficiently ready to carry out vaccine and drug trials when the outbreak struck, the MPs added.

The committee warned that poor vaccine production capacity could leave the UK vulnerable in the event of other infection epidemics, either abroad or at home.

The report called on the Government to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers to ensure a rapid response to any future emergency.

During the MPs' inquiry, concern was also expressed about the handling of Ebola screening at UK entry ports.

The UK's stance on implementing screening at airports changed over the course of three days during the height of the outbreak, and ultimately went against guidance from the World Health Organisation and Public Health England.

Ms Blackwood concluded: "It is encouraging that the Government has pledged more public investment in vaccine and treatment development for infectious diseases, but it should not stop there.

"It must maximise the effectiveness of these funds by publishing an infectious disease strategy, identifying the 'priority threats' that the UK should address, how much funding will be directed to each threat, and how action will be delivered."

Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health, at Oxford University, said: "The committee report highlights some important issues, which if addressed will go some way to improving the UK response to epidemics like Ebola.

"However, the recommendations are largely inward looking and procedural; focused on communications, representation, and decision making.

"To an extent this reflects the terms of reference but for me the report is disappointing in its restricted vision for the scope of UK science to build global resilience against diseases like Ebola."

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in March 2014 and quickly became the deadliest occurrence of the disease since its discovery in 1976.

In total an estimated 28,637 people were infected and the virus caused 11,315 probable, suspected or confirmed deaths.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Months before the first cases of Ebola were identified in Sierra Leone, Britain was at the forefront of tackling this unprecedented epidemic. From rapidly deploying NHS medics and military personnel to building treatment centres, our swift and effective action helped save thousands of lives and contain the spread of the disease.

"We have already taken steps to ensure an even more effective response in future. This includes the £1billion Ross Fund for infectious disease research, the UK Vaccine Network to target the most threatening diseases, and a rapid response team of public health professionals who can be deployed within 48 hours to investigate a disease outbreak in a developing country."