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New Porton Down Costs Spike 500% and Facility 15 Years Behind Schedule — and Nothing was Done to Prevent it

Ministers and civil servants condemned for lack of transparency and accountability with no one able to show actions “taken to hold leadership accountable”

An artist's impression of how the public health labs planned for Harlow would look. Photo: PHE
An artist’s impression of how the public health labs planned for Harlow would look. Photo: PHE

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Plans for a new state of the art Porton Down high containment laboratory to handle the most dangerous diseases to humans have been dumped by Department for Health ministers on the next government after a 500% cost rise and delays that will stop it from opening until 2036.

The bad state of the ageing laboratories at both Porton Down and Colindale, in north London, have been known since Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2008, when the laboratories were given a five year useful life until 2013.

The incoming Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition took another three years until David Cameron won the next election outright in 2015 to purchase a new greenfield site for £30 million for the new lab in Harlow, Essex, the following year.

Plans were then drawn up to design the new lab prior to construction and then the whole scheme was stalled leaving the site in Harlow empty for seven years. The new lab should have opened in 2021 when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister.

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New figures obtained by the National Audit Office show the original cost has ballooned from £530 million to £3.2 billion as a decision was made to incorporate the new lab with the headquarters of the new UK Health Security Agency, which is headed by Dr Jenny Harries, the ministry’s former deputy medical officer, who played a frontline role combatting the Covid pandemic. Building inflation also contributed to the cost.

MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee were told that even if either the next Labour or Conservative government give the go-ahead for the new lab it will not be completed until 2036 and the existing labs at Porton Down, which are technically beyond their useful life, will have to be maintained until then.

MPs have now written to UKHSA and the Department for Health condemning the lack of transparency and accountability by ministers and civil servants about the programme.

The MPs say, “UKHSA and DHSC [Department for Health and Social Care] were unable to explain to us who is responsible for the mishandling of the programme or describe any actions that were taken to hold leadership accountable when it became apparent costs and timescales were significantly overrunning. Publicly available information about the programme is scarce outside of the IPA’s Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP) and the recent NAO report.”

The MPs added that, “cost and time overruns of this nature cannot be allowed to happen in future and individuals in senior positions need to be more accountable and transparent about problems on their watch”.

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MPs also warn that the present government have also racked up costs which will be lost if the programme does not progress at Harlow, saying “at least £295 million of taxpayer money will be written off”.

“Up to the end of the 2023-24 financial year, UKHSA and its predecessor organisations had spent £406 million on the programme at Harlow. If the programme does not go ahead at Harlow, UKHSA expects to be able to recover costs on design work of around £40 to £50 million if the design of the main building can be recycled.”

A cheaper £2 billion plan to build new labs on the existing Porton Down site in Hampshire is being studied by MPs who found that costs had not properly worked out and it will require planning permission which could delay the scheme again.

Whitehall is restricted from commenting on the letter because of the general election.

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