Ebola nurse Donna Wood had unblemished record, tribunal hears

The nurse who was found to have concealed her colleague Pauline Cafferkey’s raised temperature before she tested positive for Ebola risked her life for others in Sierra Leone and has an otherwise unblemished record, a tribunal has heard.

Donna Wood’s lawyer told an independent panel at the Nursing and Midwifery Council that he accepted their findings but said her actions amounted to a brief “lapse of judgment” by a professional who had given almost 30 years of “distinguished” service to the NHS.

Ben Rich was speaking the day after Wood had been found guilty of misconduct following allegations that she knew Cafferkey had a high temperature and that she failed to escalate this during the screening process at Heathrow airport when they returned from six weeks volunteering in Sierra Leone in December 2014.

Before the panel retired to consider whether her misconduct amounted to an impairment in the nurse’s current fitness to practice, Rich told them: “On your findings it would be incorrect to find that any of those professionals, Donna Wood included, really thought that Pauline Cafferkey had Ebola.”

He told the panel that several witnesses including the lead clinician on the screening team, Deepti Kumar, had said that Cafferkey did not seem unwell on the day.

“Had there been the slightest suspicion that actually Pauline Cafferkey was ill, you know that witnesses you found to be honest, thought that Pauline Cafferkey seemed completely well,” Rich said.

Cafferkey initially passed the screening process after her temperature was found to be over 38C but was recorded on a form as normal. When she returned to the screening room her temperature was taken three more times and found to be normal.

Cafferkey had told the manager of the screening process, David Carruthers, a former Metropolitan police officer, that she had taken paracetamol about an hour before, which could have masked her real temperature.

But Carruthers, who had no clinical training, did not understand the significance of this and failed to pass the information on to Kumar, who was assessing Cafferkey in the second screening.

Rich pointed out that Kumar was among several witnesses who had nonetheless said that Cafferkey appeared well despite her temperature.

He told the panel on Thursday that the findings amounted to a “momentary lapse of judgment in a nurse who has an otherwise distinguished record of service to the NHS, to the public, a distinguished period of service to Ebola patients before this during which time she risked her own life for the benefit of others”.

An Ebola treatment centre outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, in December 2014.

An Ebola treatment centre outside Freetown, Sierra Leone, in December 2014. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Wood was brought before the NMC on three misconduct charges, including recording Cafferkey’s temperature reading dishonestly in order to hide it from public health officials.

It transpired during the hearing that the group had decided to take their own temperatures because the screening team were not equipped to do so. They had run out of screening forms and only had four screening cubicles for about 50 people.

On Wednesday the NMC found that she had not recorded an incorrect temperature as alleged but found that she had suggested that Cafferkey’s temperature be recorded lower so that the volunteer group could leave the “uncomfortable” and “chaotic” area more quickly.

Wood is facing a professional sanction, which could involve being struck off or a suspension.

Aja Hall, the case presenter for the NMC, told the panel the case was “particularly serious” as “Pauline Cafferkey was in the starting stages of Ebola and in an extremely busy and public place”.

She said it was “well established” that a high temperature was the “first sign that there may be infection, which is why so much significance was placed on the taking of temperature, both in Sierra Leone but more crucially through the screening process at Heathrow airport”.

The panel is expected to to conclude its deliberations on Friday.