Ebola and British Politics

The first case of Ebola in the UK is following the trajectory of recent American cases – headline hysteria and a rear guard action to reassure the public.

A nurse returned from Sierra Leone as a health worker. Despite following (it would seem) all appropriate procedures throughout her clinical work, she was diagnosed with the virus in Glasgow, having travelled on a flight from which her fellow passengers had jumped off in London, global city, and then, with her, in Glasgow itself.

Once the diagnosis had been made, the system seems to have worked well (so far). The nurse was transported to a specialist unit at the Royal Free Hospital in North London, the majority of fellow passengers (though not yet all) were traced within 24 hours and an expert assured us that the woman was not in a position to pass on the disease during the flights.

So far, so good for the public though less so for the patient. There will be concerns about how she contracted the disease outside a clinical setting which may create difficulties for health workers in the future but there is no need to panic. The British can breathe freely.

But wait! The US saw an unseemly partisan brawl over the US Government’s forward policy. Although it subsided as the threat remained small and localised, struggles for power have no respect for science or a balanced view of the world. Could we see this in the UK?

A report in the Daily Telegraph this morning from a medical colleague of the nurse showed us the Achilles’ Heel of the modern state – weakening administrative capacity under conditions of austerity and globalisation. The politics of this is what is interesting if this happens again … for we are told to expect 'a handful of cases':

"The precautions and checks at the airport were shambolic. They ran out of testing kits and didn't seem to know what they were doing … We were classed as being a level three risk which is a high risk. The advice was that we should not take public transport to travel anywhere more than an hour away yet we all did after arriving into Heathrow Airport … some took flights to Scotland while others went on cramped tube trains.”

After bluffing it out for a while, health officials admitted they had screwed up. The risk to the public is ‘negligible’ but the medic was right to say that the disease is not well understood. There is no sticker on the virus to say – "Hey, I am going to be pneumonic version".

Border administration is a big political issue that could help decide the next election for reasons that have nothing to do with disease and everything to do with immigration. It is an open secret that the borders are virtually open despite the claims of the Government and that the system is in meltdown.

The level of human error involved appears to be much the same as it was in the US. The sub-text of the complaint in the Telegraph piece is that, if we are at threat (and it is not being asserted that we are), it will be because of the refusal by Government to invest in a functioning immigration service despite frequent warnings from the Right.

If a serious outbreak in the next five months can be traced to a failure of protocols and administration at the border, it could snowball into the sort of political crisis that might propel UKIP back up the charts and destabilise current centre-right arrangements.

There is also growing Southern resistance to new airport capacity. Although the argument has not been made yet, if Southern voters see this capacity as multiplying personal risks rather than benefits, those votes will go to UKIP or Greens and nowhere else. Tories under flight paths could get very nervous.