How mixed messages on Ebola have failed public interest

17 October 2014 -


Confused announcements on the threat level of the disease and a related screening programme have done anything but reassure UK citizens

Will Edwards

To screen or not to screen – that’s the question that the government was criticised for pondering this week.

A tragic and devastating outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has now started to rattle the US and Europe, with cases identified in a range of developed countries far from the wellspring of the disease. However, it seems that there has never been a firm plan in place to handle this type of crisis – and while health workers protested in Spain and others fell ill in the US, the UK government has appeared to scrabble around for ideas to stop from Ebola spreading in this country.

It was suggested that screening could take place at airports – but that was discounted by Public Health England, who told the Daily Mail: “Screening is not an effective way to prevent the virus spreading.”

But within hours of that statement, the government announced that they would be introducing screening at Heathrow, and that other UK airports would follow. Opposition parties were quick to comment, with Labour's transport spokesperson, Mary Creagh saying: “Our government has been sending out mixed messages on screening.”

Some experts pointed out that, due to Ebola’s incubation periods – and the fact that passengers can turn screening down – the process was not going to be an effective measure.

At a time when the crisis looks to be worsening abroad, the government really ought to have communicated clearly to the public what the issues were – and what they were doing about it. Instead, we’ve had reports from various parts of the government (or quasi-governmental voices) that contradict each other.

We’re now left with a screening process, apparently set to cost £98 million, which most people have already heard experts describe as “pointless”. If this were a move intended to reassure the public, it has only bred further confusion.

Making sure you have a crisis plan in place, and then a way to communicate consistent messages about it, is basic and best-practice media relations. Unfortunately, the government appears to have failed on both counts.

Will Edwards is managing director of media training consultancy Bluewood Training.