Damning Commons report on poor state of APHA laboratory 'extremely concerning'
16th Nov 2022 / By Alistair Driver
The NPA has described a damning report by MPs on the state of APHA's Weybridge laboratory as 'extremely concerning' and said it must serve as a 'call to action' for Government.
The Public Accounts Committee has warned that the Government’s failure to maintain its veterinary laboratory at Weybridge, the country's primary facility for monitoring animal disease, is leaving the UK at risk of devastating livestock diseases.
The MPs have accused the Government of not sufficiently prioritising the ‘significant threat to UK health, trade, farming and rural communities’ posed by animal diseases, such as African swine fever (ASF).
- You can view the report on the Redevelopment of Defra’s animal health infrastructure HERE
The committee found there were over 1,000 ‘single points of failure’ that could cause ‘major disruption’ at the Weybridge site, which carries out tests and research on animal samples for disease surveillance, as part of its wider remit of tackling and eradicating high-risk animal diseases.
Defra is upgrading the site, and the Treasury has approved funding of £1.2 billion for a Weybridge redevelopment programme, including £200 million up to 2024-25. However, this compares with the Department’s current cost estimate of £2.8 billion
The report said that due to the considerable time taken to get a redevelopment programme up and running, a ‘critical works patch and repair’ programme will run until the redevelopment programme is due to be completed in 2036.
The MPs said Defra has ‘comprehensively failed in its historical management’ of what is the UK’s primary site for managing plant and animal disease threats.
Deterioration due to ‘inadequate management and under-investment’ has left the site ‘continually vulnerable to a major breakdown’, which would severely impact the ability to effectively respond to disease outbreaks.
Highlighting the threat of ASF, which is circulating in various European countries, as an example of the ongoing disease threats the UK faces, the report said Weybridge would already ‘struggle’ with anything higher than a medium category outbreak, or any multiple outbreaks.
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said: “After the 2001 disaster of foot and mouth disease, the past decades have brought one animal-sourced disease after another.
“It is shocking that government has allowed UK capacity in this area to deteriorate so alarmingly over that same period.
“These diseases are devastating for our food production systems, the economy and, when they jump the species barrier to humans as COVID-19 did, to our whole society. Government must get a grip on this crucial and much delayed redevelopment programme. When it comes to the safety of our country we cannot afford more of the waste and delivery failures that continue to characterise far too many major projects.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are proud of Weybridge’s long-standing reputation for excellence in the field of biosecurity and the work it does to protect the UK from animal diseases.
“Significant funding and work is already underway to upgrade its laboratories and ensure we are protected from these diseases into the future.
“Its world-leading scientists and our field teams are playing a vital role in responding rapidly and decisively to the threats from animal diseases, including the current Avian Influenza outbreak, which is the largest on record.”
NPA chief policy adviser Rebecca Veale said the report was ‘extremely concerning, although not surprising’.
“It is a call to action that Government must acknowledge and address immediately. The risk posed by notifiable diseases such as African swine fever has never been so high and so urgent – hence why the facilities at Weybridge are so integral, and should therefore be well resourced to ensure we are as well protected as possible,” she said.
Ms Veale pointed out that the 2000 classical swine fever and the 2001 FMD outbreaks cost the UK Government an estimated £3.5 billion, while the ongoing avian flu outbreak has stretched APHA’s resources already and demonstrates how critical adequate staffing, resources and expertise are in a disease outbreak situation.
“The report makes a number of recommendation – however there is little recognition of the risk, responsibility and potential impact and cost, this lack of investment places on industry should we contract ASF, particularly given the extremely challenging few years the pig sector has experienced and continues to face,” she added.
“NPA will continue to lobby Treasury and wider Government to make sure they understand that a lack of sufficient investment in Weybridge is a national disease risk and that this must be addressed urgently for the health, and welfare, of our national herd.”