Fighting animal diseases such as bird flu could be undermined by the poor state of the UK’s main laboratory, watchdogs warn.
Some facilities at the government veterinary base in Weybridge, Surrey, have deteriorated so much that they “no longer serve their purpose”.
The National Audit Office says delays in its reconstruction could limit the UK’s response to another disease outbreak.
The government said it was taking steps to secure the facility’s future.
The Weybridge site, operated by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), is the UK’s leading animal health laboratory, and it is here that research of international importance is carried out on major animal diseases such as BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza.
The NAO report on Wednesday looks at the government’s plans to redevelop the site, with construction of a new science center due to start in 2027, and whether these plans will offer value for money.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs originally estimated the rebuilding would cost £1.2bn, but this has now risen to £2.8bn, a cost that has yet to be approved by Her Majesty’s Treasury.
And the NAO says there still “remains substantial uncertainty around costs.”
Meanwhile, an estimated investment of £197 million between 2020 and 2025 is still needed to maintain the site.
The report says: “Weybridge is in poor condition, with aging buildings in need of major repair and replacement, and a lack of capacity to carry out scientific work.
“Defra has allowed its Weybridge site to deteriorate to a state where some of the facilities are no longer fit for purpose.
“The underinvestment level and poor strategic management of the site has greatly increased the risk and complexity of the redevelopment program.
“Any delay or difficulty in completing the program may expose APHA’s operations to increased risk, which could limit its ability to respond effectively to a major disease outbreak.”
‘Reputation par excellence’
Gareth Davies, director of the NAO, added that Defra “has recently put many of the right measures in place to manage the redevelopment successfully, but will have many risks to overcome to deliver a site that can protect the UK against animal disease outbreaks.” . and demonstrate value to taxpayers.”
In 2019, Defra said the lab’s decline could lead to a complete loss of capacity within the next decade, leaving the UK vulnerable to future animal disease outbreaks.
Responding to today’s report, Defra said the estimated cost of reconstruction would continue to be “refined” and that the NAO review underscored the need to invest in the site.
Biosafety Minister Lord Richard Benyon said: “We are proud of Weybridge’s long-standing reputation for excellence in science and evidence that safeguards UK biosafety, as evidenced by the fact that 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 in the site, which is why we have secured £1.4bn of funding so that we can continue to attract and retain the best scientists to ensure the UK is protected against these kinds of threats for decades to come.” . come through world-leading facilities.
The APHA laboratory is currently dealing with the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, which has seen more than 100 cases across the UK.