MPs flag animal disease concerns as APHA Weybridge site ‘left to deteriorate’

A new report from the Public Accounts Committee has raised questions about Weybridge’s ability to cope with a major disease outbreak, as well as government plans for redevelopment – and makes a series of seven recommendations for Defra.

In the report, published this week, MPs said they are ‘greatly concerned’ that the government is not sufficiently prioritising the significant threat that animal diseases pose to UK health, trade, farming and rural communities.

Weybridge, which is the UK’s main animal health facility, has been ‘left to deteriorate to an alarming extent,’ they wrote.

The report was published by the Public Accounts Committee, a group of 15 cross-party MPs appointed by the House of Commons. It looks at Defra’s redevelopment programme for Weybridge.

One of the report’s key findings relates to APHA’s ability to respond to animal disease outbreaks. Whilst APHA is confident it could currently respond to a Category 3 animal disease outbreak (the middle category on a scale of 1-5), it would have to pause some of its important research, due to Weybridge’s limited lab capacity.

It would struggle with higher category outbreaks, or more than one outbreak at the same time, the report said.

Risk of a major breakdown

Despite being the UK’s primary science capability for managing threats from animal diseases, the report said Defra had ‘allowed the Weybridge site to deteriorate to a completely unacceptable degree, through a combination of inadequate management and under investment.’

This has left the site vulnerable to a major breakdown ‘which would severely impact the APHA’s operations including its ability to effectively respond to disease outbreaks,’ MPs added.

According to the report, Defra has managed the site as a property asset rather than an important national asset.

The site is continually vulnerable to a major breakdown, which would severely impact operations, including response to disease outbreaks. While contingency plans are in place, a major breakdown could mean it takes longer to do surveillance testing during a disease outbreak, the report found.

The site has over 1,000 ‘single points of failure’ that would cause a major disruption to operations.

Cost and staffing concerns

The cost of the redevelopment programme for Weybridge was another concern – Defra has estimated the cost at £2.8 billion over 15 years, but HM Treasury has so far only approved £1.2 billion, and there remains significant uncertainty over the cost estimate.

Failure to secure adequate additional funding would mean revisiting the scope of the programme and the extent of the redevelopment, the committee warned.

While Defra now has many of the right elements in place for managing the programme, there is also a risk that it will not have enough staff capability and capacity to manage the programme effectively, the report continued.

The programme is high risk, with major redevelopment taking place on an important operational site, so the department must ensure sufficient staff to manage it effectively, particularly the commercial risks.

Additionally, MPs noted that the government’s National Risk Register only ranks the impact of animal diseases as Category C, the middle ranking on a five-point scale. The report said Defra must ensure the next update to the National Risk Register adequately reflects the seriousness of the threat.

Its ‘inadequate long-term management’ of the Weybridge site also indicates that the department has not viewed animal disease as a high enough priority, and it has also lacked a strong enough voice on the issue in government, the committee commented.

‘The risk of a zoonotic (animal sourced) disease is real and the consequences can be devastating as the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and most recently avian influenza have shown. Covid-19 has also highlighted the breadth of impact a zoonotic disease outbreak can have across society,’ the report said.

‘Currently the UK faces threats from ongoing diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, new potential diseases such as African swine fever, and diseases affecting domestic pets including rabies.’

The redevelopment programme is not due to be completed until 2036 so Defra is looking to manage the risk of a breakdown in the shorter term by:

  • A critical works ‘patch and repair’ programme
  • Increasing staff resources to manage the site
  • Putting in place a more appropriate facilities management contract.

As a matter of urgency, Defra and APHA must stress test their contingency plans for a major breakdown at the site and how they would cope with a significant animal disease outbreak, which coincided with a major breakdown, the committee said.

A Defra spokesperson commented: “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.”

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