Royal Free’s Ebola ward ‘safer in Hampstead than on Craggy Island’

The country’s only ward to treat infectious diseases like Ebola is safer in built-up Hampstead than if it were relocated to Salisbury Plain or Craggy Island, hospital chiefs have insisted.

Concerns that Hampstead could be at risk from a deadly outbreak of the virus should an infected patient escape from the Royal Free Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Unit were raised by residents at a meeting of the board of directors last Thursday.

Employment lawyer Jessica Learmond-Criqui and energy researcher Peter Rutherford argued to move the unit to a less populated area like rural Salisbury Plain or Craggy Island, the fictional rocky outcrop in sitcom Father Ted.

However, doctors were adamant that any risk to the public would not be made smaller by relocating the unit.

Non-executive director Stephen Ainger told the board: “I would say a unit in Salisbury Plain would be as safe, but I would suggest that having it in a place where everyone works regularly together as a team is safer than a team that comes together every now and then.”

In August, doctors led by infectious diseases consultant Dr Michael Jacobs successfully treated the unit’s first Ebola patient, volunteer nurse William Pooley.

The Infectious Diseases Unit where he stayed has two beds surrounded by isolator tents, air pressure units and full body suits and is heavily guarded by security officers when an infected patient is being treated.

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Ms Learmond-Criqui, chairman of the Frognal and Fitzjohns Safer Neighbourhood Panel, believes a patient could potentially become disorientated, overpower staff and flee.

“I think they’ve done a marvellous job in helping the nurse,” she said. But I remained concerned about having the unit in such a built-up area.

“I am not convinced by the hospital’s explanation.”

Dr Jacobs said it would be “quite difficult” to simply walk out of the unit unnoticed.

Since Ebola was identified in Guinea in March, the World Health Organisation has reported 3,685 cases of Ebola in West Africa and 1,841 deaths.

The virus has between a 50 and 90 per cent mortality rate and there is no cure.

The risk of transmitting the virus to the general population is very low according to Public Health England as it can only be passed on through contact with blood or bodily fluids.

Mr Rutherford, of West Hampstead, shares Ms Learmond-Criqui’s concerns.

He told directors: “Even if the risk is one in 14 million, you have to appreciate that it could still happen.

“Because living locally is so expensive, staff could live anywhere up and down the Northern Line and could pass the infection on.”

Dr Jacobs admitted an outbreak in Hampstead would be a “national emergency”.

He said: “We are the best place to be able to deal with it as the real experts are in places like this.

“We believe all the measures are in place to negate the risk.”