David Hencke has the details of a shocking new report showing how a flagship science laboratory needs a multi-billion-pound refurb

The UK may not be able to cope with a major animal disease pandemic because of the crumbling state of the country’s main science laboratory, the National Audit Office (NAO) warns in a report published today.

It says that the laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, needs a £2.8 billion rehaul after more than 20 years of neglect.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), is responsible for tackling animal disease outbreaks, undertaking long-term research and certifying and inspecting the plants and animals imported by the UK.

The disclosure of the state of its main laboratories comes as the Government has indicated that it wants to depart from the EU’s high food standards, while cooperation on advance disease warnings between the EU and the UK has broken down following Brexit.

As reported by Byline Times last month, the Food Standards Agency, a sister DEFRA body, has lost full access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, which it used to exchange information about food safety risks and responses across the EU.

MPs now say that “officials are fumbling in the dark.”

The NAO report says the Weybridge site contains 98% of the country’s high containment laboratories. It is the only facility equipped to deal with most zoonotic diseases – which were thought to be the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report says that DEFRA estimated in 2019 that the decline of the state of buildings at Weybridge could lead to a total loss of capability within the next five to 10 years. “This would leave the UK vulnerable to future animal disease outbreaks,” it says.

“There have also been instances of core facilities breaking down and buildings unfit to be used,” the report adds. “Some buildings are only usable because APHA has obtained exemptions from HSE [Health and Safety Executive] from certain containment and control measures” to continue work there.

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Investment in the labs was halted in 2008 after the global financial crisis and money has only subsequently been spent on the labs on a ‘patch and repair’ basis.

By 2017, the department tried to quantify how much money would be needed to rebuild the laboratories and bring the site up to modern standards. Its first estimate of £1.2 billion proved to be woefully inadequate and has now been increased to £2.8 billion.

The Treasury is yet to approve the final plans – having agreed to a further £200 million under the patch and repair scheme while accepting the first case estimate of £1.2 billion. It is estimated that it will take 15 years to complete the rebuilding of the centre.

Animal disease outbreaks are hugely expensive for both taxpayers and the private sector. The NAO estimated that the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak would have cost more £12 billion to taxpayers and the private sector at 2021 prices.

“DEFRA has allowed the Weybridge site to deteriorate to a point where major redevelopment is now urgently required. Considering the site’s importance to the UK, it has taken DEFRA a long time to set up a programme to redevelop it,” said Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO.

“The department has recently put in place many of the right measures to manage the redevelopment successfully, but it will need to navigate many risks to deliver a site that can protect the UK against animal disease outbreaks and demonstrate value for taxpayers.”

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “The Weybridge site is a vital part of our national resilience to animal diseases, yet has been left to crumble through years of under-investment. The patch and mend approach to maintenance is poor value in the long run, with money wasted propping up ageing assets.

“It’s yet another example of Government not taking the reins on asset management and simply kicking the can down the road.”

Biosecurity Minister, Lord Richard Benyon said: “We are proud of Weybridge’s long-standing reputation for excellence in science and evidence that safeguards UK biosecurity, as demonstrated by the fact it is the international reference laboratory for a wide range of important pests and diseases.

“It is right that we plan to make significant investments into the site, which is why we have secured £1.4 billion of funding so that we can continue to attract and retain the best scientists to ensure the UK’s protection from this kind of threat for decades to come through world leading facilities.”

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