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UK Screening for the Ebola virus – what laws protect us

October 28th, 2014

The Ebola virus continues to dominate our news and is now a major concern throughout the international community – the topic is at the centre of our current affairs.  The current epidemic is now having major implications here in the UK, with preventative measures being increased amid fears that the virus will continue to spread.

This has been most clearly seen by the decision of Public Health England to being start screening UK-bound air passengers, coming in on main routes from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.  These measures have now begun at Heathrow airport, with expansion of the screening process coming to Gatwick airport and the Eurostar – the major transport hubs in the UK.

The screening process has been well documented, but there are some important implications and consequences to the regulations imposed on passengers, which may be overlooked at first glance.  From a legal point of view, it has illustrated the legislation that the UK Government has in place to react in these circumstances.

When passengers do arrive, the screening process ensures that they will have their temperature taken and will have to complete a health and travel questionnaire, providing their contact details.  If the results of the screening cause no concern, passengers are provided with NHS contact details and allowed to continue on their journey.  However, if passenger displays symptoms or have had recent exposure to Ebola, they could be placed under quarantine under Public Health legislation.

The Health Protection Regulations 2010 gave public authorities updated powers and statutory obligations to prevent and control health risks to the public, specifically from diseases and infection.  Most noticeably, a local authority could apply to the Magistrates Court to obtain a Part 2A Order if he believes there is a significant risk of infection, whereby a person could be detained in a hospital.  In this instance, an Order could direct a hospital or trust to provide a bed for the person and to ensure that they are detained for the duration of the Order.  The Regulations allow a maximum period of 28 days from the date of the Order to potential detain a person.  Even then, an extension could be sought for a further 28 days.

The Regulations do not stop there.  There are provisions to prevent people at risk or suffering symptoms of Ebola from absconding hospital.  Under the Regulations, where a person fails to comply with the Order of detention, and a reasonable excuse is not given, they could be liable for a summary conviction and a fine up to £20,000.  In more extreme cases, the police have powers to remand a person in custody for the period the Order remains in force.

It is clear that the need to protect the public from the spread of infectious diseases is a very high priority and understandably requires highly effective measures to prevent further the health risk.  The Ebola virus has illustrated this clearly.  What this also illustrates is what legal parameters do exist in these circumstances.

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