Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey has been cleared of professional misconduct by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. At a two-day hearing in Edinburgh, it was alleged that her fitness to practise was impaired and that she had placed the public at risk by failing to report her raised temperature on return to the UK. It is a case that has garnered much media coverage, as well as heavy criticism of the NMC and Public Health England.

In the second half of 2014, the Ebola epidemic sweeping across West Africa gained global attention. Pauline Cafferkey, along with a number of UK medical and health professionals, volunteered to work in Sierra Leone to help tackle the disease. She returned to the UK, via Heathrow, on 28 December 2014.

All passengers returning from high-risk areas had their temperature taken. Any temperature above 37.5C was considered elevated and should have been reported. The screening area was congested and busy. Ms Cafferkey and her colleagues – though off duty – decided to take their own temperatures in order to speed up the process.

Ms Cafferkey's temperature was noted as being above the limit. Despite this, PHE recorded her temperature as 37.2C and she left the screening area. She was accused of taking paracetamol to lower her temperature. After leaving the screening area she told another doctor of her accurate temperature and was sent back. However, by the time her temperature was taken again, it had dropped below the limit and she was allowed to fly home.

Upon her return to Glasgow, Ms Cafferkey's symptoms developed rapidly and she became the first person in the UK to be diagnosed with Ebola. She spent over a month in isolation at London's Royal Free Hospital and was twice re-admitted following complications.

The NMC alleged that taking paracetamol was a deliberate attempt to mislead, as was the recording of false temperatures. Ms Cafferkey was cleared of all charges. The panel found that her actions could only be explained by her developing illness and state of exhaustion; she could not be held responsible for putting the public in danger.

The NMC has a duty to protect the health and wellbeing of the public as well as ensuring the maintenance of public confidence in the profession. The charges were raised after a complaint made by Public Health England.  

The NMC Code provides the professional standards that nurses and midwives must uphold. A nurse has a duty to ensure that public safety is protected. They must act without delay if they believe there is a risk to public protection. They must uphold the reputation of the profession at all times.

Ms Caffereky was travelling home and was not on duty at the airport. The fact that allegations were brought at all underlines the higher standards that professionals must display – regardless of whether they are working. Nurses, just like doctors, dentists and other professionals, must always meet their professional standards.

The result for Ms Cafferkey was positive: she has not been sanctioned by her regulator. However many professionals have fallen foul of their professional body for their actions or behaviour whilst off duty. All health professionals would do well to remember that they must display professional standards and uphold the reputation of their professions at all times.

Off Duty But Not Off The Hook

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