Nurse cleared in Ebola case 'would not have knowingly put anyone in danger'
Published 14/09/2016 | 20:07
A nurse who survived Ebola has been cleared of misconduct over her return to the UK with the virus, saying she would never have knowingly put anyone in danger.
Pauline Cafferkey was accused of allowing an incorrect temperature to be recorded in a "chaotic" screening centre in Heathrow on her return from west Africa in late 2014.
An independent panel at the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) in Edinburgh found three charges against her were not proven and her fitness to practise was not affected.
It ruled her judgement at the airport in December 2014 had been so impaired by the developing illness that she could not be found guilty of misconduct.
Referring to her "exhausted and increasingly unwell state" after returning from Sierra Leone, it concluded: "In your diminished medical state you were swept along by events."
Speaking outside the hearing, Ms Cafferkey's lawyer said she was "relieved the process is at an end" and stressed the nurse would have never knowingly placed anyone in danger.
She also criticised Public Health England (PHE), which ran the airport screening area described during the hearing as "disorganised and chaotic".
Joyce Cullen said of her client: "She willingly put her life at risk to travel to Sierra Leone to work as a volunteer helping to treat people suffering from Ebola.
"She and hundreds of other volunteers played a vital role in saving lives, helping to curb the epidemic in extremely challenging circumstances."
The solicitor said Ms Cafferkey - a registered nurse for 18 years - and her fellow volunteers were faced with "chaotic" scenes when they arrived at Heathrow.
"Public Health England were unprepared for the volume of people returning from countries affected by Ebola," she said.
"There were also serious failures in communication amongst the Public Health England staff.
"It is perhaps ironic given the criticisms made of Public Health England's processes it was their complaint which led to the NMC investigation and these proceedings being initiated against Pauline. No doubt lessons have been learned."
Ms Cullen said the disciplinary process had been "stressful and upsetting" for her client and added: "She is delighted that the panel has made the decision she has no case to answer and is now able to continue her nursing career in Scotland."
The Scottish medical worker, 40, became infected with Ebola during a six-week spell working in Sierra Leone towards the end of 2014.
The NMC had alleged Ms Cafferkey, from Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire, allowed an incorrect temperature to be recorded during the screening process at Heathrow on December 28 that year and she left a screening area without reporting her true temperature.
Sitting at the NMC, independent panel chairman Timothy Cole said it was not disputed Ms Cafferkey was "jetlagged, exhausted and experiencing the early effects of a significant viral load of Ebola" at the crucial time.
He concluded: "The panel was of the view that in your diminished medical state, you were swept along by events and it was satisfied that in order to make a finding of misconduct, it would be necessary to find a degree of participation which was absent in this case.
"On that basis, the panel was not satisfied that your actions could properly be characterised as misconduct."
Ms Cafferkey appeared to smile as she left the hearing room.
The session was told on Tuesday that a doctor took Ms Cafferkey's temperature at the airport and found it to be up to 38.3C (100F).
A high temperature can be an early sign of an infection.
"Dr one says that registrant A (someone else in the group) stated at this point that she would record the temperature as 37.2 degrees on Ms Cafferkey's screening form and then they would 'get out of here and sort it out'," the evidence stated.
Agreed facts show that Ms Cafferkey stated she cannot remember who said it or who entered the lower temperature on her form.
The nurse was eventually cleared for onward travel, arrived in Glasgow late in the evening and awoke feeling "very unwell" the following day.
She was diagnosed with Ebola - with one of the highest viral loads ever recorded - and spent almost a month being treated in an isolation unit at London's Royal Free Hospital.
Ms Cafferkey went on to have two further admissions to hospital - one with a relapse of the Ebola virus and the other with chronic meningitis.
Following the hearing, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: "Sending my very best wishes to Pauline Cafferkey. Her bravery is an inspiration to all of us."
NMC chief executive Jackie Smith said: "As the independent panel recognised, the NMC has an overarching duty to protect the health and wellbeing of the public and need to ensure the maintenance of public confidence in the profession.
"The referral from Public Health England showed a highly unusual set of circumstances that clearly required a thorough and proper investigation. In circumstances like this, it is right for an independent panel to hear all the evidence to decide if any action is required."
Professor Paul Cosford, Public Health England director of health protection and medical director, said: "The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was unprecedented and we are hugely grateful to all the volunteers who contributed at great personal risk, including our own staff.
"We support the judgment of the panel and wish Pauline Cafferkey well with her ongoing recovery and for her future."