How we adapted our comms contingency plans for Ebola scenario

Last month's high-profile Ebola simulation was routine for public health dangers, writes the Department of Health's director of comms.

Sam Lister: director of comms at the Department of Health

The second week of October had long been pencilled in the diaries as an important test of government and health system emergency preparedness. For much of this year the Department of Health has been leading on a cross-government programme designed to test resilience for the emergence of a flu pandemic on UK soil, and a further phase of the simulation was scheduled to take place.

As is so often the way, reality int­ervened. The Ebola virus, the worsening situation in West Afr­ica and the issues encountered by the Spanish and US health systems dealing with the handful of cases in those countries became the immediate focus of our preparedness planning.

The simulation started with a man (an actor) collapsing at 8.30am on a Saturday in the Metro Centre in Gateshead, one of the largest shopping centres in Europe.

This was the trigger for an eight-hour national exercise, involving 999 handlers, ambulance crews, hospital staff across multiple sites, local and national public health officials, NHS leads, scientists at the Porton Down laboratories, police, local authorities, the chief medical officer, the Cabinet Office, five other government dep­artments and six ministers.

Three meetings of COBRA (the government’s crisis response committee) were chaired by the Health Secretary and, midway through, a second unrelated scenario – the simulation of a patient with flu-like symptoms turning up at a walk-in centre in Hillingdon, west London, after returning from West Africa – was thrown into the mix.

The co-ordination between operations and communication is always critical in such exercises, and something comms teams in different agencies study closely.

On this occasion there was an interesting challenge to contend with, symptomatic of today’s media environment. The first system alert at a national level came not only through local channels – a call into the emergency services gets triaged and played up through the system by public health officials as the severity of the case is gauged – but also straight into Whitehall.

The scenario saw someone playing a journalist, alerted to a tweeted photo of an ambulance crew in protective outfits, calling in to the Department of Health’s media centre. Just as the calls came up of a situation in Gateshead, so they were going out to ascertain the truth behind a journalist’s speculative enquiry.

The exercise was just one small part of contingency planning, building on activity we practise routinely for a variety of illnesses and other emergencies. We had several other tests in the same week, including a regional police exercise, the real-life situations of a couple of ‘possible’ presentations in the NHS (identified as negative), and a false alarm called into the 111 line.

Each made for further scrutiny of a world-leading system for dealing with infectious diseases. The risk posed by Ebola to the UK remains low, even though it is likely there will be a handful of cases here. The first may have already happened by the time you read this; if so, behind the scenes will have been many, many hours of practice finally playing out.

Sam Lister is director of comms at the Department of Health

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