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Ebola has to be top of the agenda...

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Jeremy Hunt put ebola ahead of the NHS strike when addressing the House of Commons – and rightly didn’t receive a kicking from the opposition over it – but refusing pay rises could still prove costly

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When MPs returned to Westminster, was Jeremy Hunt right to make an early Commons statement on the threat of the Ebola virus, rather than discuss the four hour strike by NHS staff, who are angry enough about their continuing pay freeze to disrupt hospital services?

‘Belated screening at airports won’t keep ebola out or hysterical tabloids sensible, but it will help’

On balance, I think so. And so too did MPs, who agreed to a midweek debate on the NHS, but did not use the health secretary’s exchanges to score political points about the dispute.

It’s not cynical on these occasions to ask whether the timing of a political initiative – timing, not substance – is being used to distract attention from an embarrassment. After all, it does happen. But not here, I think, though I did expect Mr Hunt to report on Ebola when MPs met on 1 September.

The grim fact is that jungle based Ebola has now taken hold in cities, but so far only in small, poor West African countries; Nigerian friends confirm that their oil rich state has done brilliantly in dealing with the threat.

Potential for a pandemic

Ebola is bad news for us all in the wired world we inhabit. UK ministers have belatedly instituted screening at key airports; while it won’t keep ebola out or hysterical tabloids sensible, it will help.

‘The cost of Zmapp would render trivial the £1bn bird flu vaccine. What price a 1 per cent NHS pay rise in that context?’

That said, experts whose cue I take are starting to admit that this has the potential to become a pandemic like the late Roman empire’s great bubonic plague of CE541, or the Black Death in the mid-1300s, which killed a third of Europeans. Why? Because it is currently very lethal but not easily contagious except via bodily fluids. That is what makes health workers so vulnerable when they deal with sick, often unruly, patients as well as with corpses.

No, the fear must be that Ebola first overwhelms fragile civil society in West Africa, then evolves a lower virulence, so that victims become infectious before they are sick. That could make it like Aids or malaria: endemic.

Trexler beds (ie: tents) and negative isolation (ie: protective) suits – both favoured by Mr Hunt – would still be needed, but on a vaster scale than the supplies now flooding into infected cities.

The cost of experimental Zmapp, a monoclonal antibody developed via (tabloid irony alert) genetically modified plants, would render trivial the £1bn spent – wasted? – on the bird flu vaccine. But MPs did agree that international cooperation is now crucial. About time too.

Weigh up the costs

What price a 1 per cent NHS pay rise in that alarming context? It makes even Islamic State look less scary, UKIP a mere hiccup.

What price a veto on that 1 per cent rise for essential and life saving NHS staff, 500 of whom have volunteered to help fight ebola, when senior company directors received a 21 per cent hike last year? Note, not one bonus gorged banker has been jailed for wrecking UK Plc’s finances, and MPs are set to pocket a 9 per cent raise.

‘Jeremy Hunt is refusing his pay rise, but nurses, midwives and paramedics, are past caring’

Jeremy Hunt is refusing his pay rise, but nurses, midwives and paramedics are past caring. It’s about self-respect as well as hardship – that’s important too. Half the staff get their 3 per cent (average) increments and some of those who don’t were given their pay review 1 per cent, ministers counter. Paying it across the board would cost 4,000 nursing jobs this year, 10,000 next year, adds Mr Hunt.

What about the £50bn price of HS2 or the billions spent on Trident, cry the nurses? What of the cost of expensive agency staff you force us to hire to maintain safe ratios, add managers? And the cost of the Lansley reforms Number 10 privately admits was “our worst mistake”, according to The Times?

The reforms saved £1bn a year on bureaucracy, Hunt loyally insists, his fingers in the leaking dyke as a perfect storm looms.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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