Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q100  Mr Cawsey: Dr Coulson might like to explain to us what the role of Defra will be after this?

  Dr Coulson: The other role was as a customer for the research. What we will be looking at is to make sure that there is the capacity and capability for our research needs, including the ability to respond for exotic disease outbreaks, which is obviously a key component for us to be concerned about. Also, that the research base is there to develop control strategies and better diagnostic tests, vaccines et cetera, that can be fed into our control policies.

  Q101  Mr Cawsey: You are on the lookout for what is coming next?

  Dr Coulson: There are two things. One is that there is a capability to respond to a disease outbreak at all times. What the evidence base and the research can offer us is opportunities for the future.

  Mr Cawsey: We have heard a lot about African horse sickness.

  Mr Boswell: And climate change.

  Q102  Mr Cawsey: There seemed to be some concern that Defra was not focused.

  Dr Coulson: I think we are looking ahead. Climate change brings some challenges. We saw a blue tongue outbreak that managed to jump into north west Europe without the associated climate change issues that had been anticipated for it, so I think we do need to keep an open mind. It is a very global community with a lot of travel and a lot of factors which mean that emerging, new diseases may occur at any time. Having a responsive research base, because they may be working on diseases we know about today, means we may need them to switch that expertise onto new diseases at short notice and have the facilities and capabilities to do that.

  Q103  Mr Cawsey: Does the HSE believe it would be better if you had responsibility for all aspects of the regulation of pathogens including for example anti-terrorism provisions and transport to give laboratories a single point of contact?

  Dr Logan: I can see that there would be benefits in having a single point of contact. We do currently work very closely with the security services. We run training courses for example for the local police who go into laboratories. We advise them on toxins and pathogens so there is a very close integration of the work currently. They are looking at very different things at the moment in terms of vetting of staff, looking at physical security and how easy it is to break into premises and the wider security issues. They really are quite distant from HSE's normal roles and responsibilities. Working closely together is probably the best answer, rather than trying to take on those functions.

  Q104  Chairman: Dr Penrose, in terms of veterinary expertise, HSE does not have any of its own. Where do you get that from?

  Dr Penrose: Currently we have a range of ten inspectors and the inspectors come from a variety of different backgrounds from a human health point of view, so we have virologists and parasitologists. We train our inspectors to be experts in containment so that is laboratory practices and procedures with micro-organisms. You are right. We do not currently have any expertise in veterinary microbiology but we do have access to ACDP and another government committee, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification which could play a part in veterinary expertise. By and large, most of our work is concentrated on human health pathogens with some other environmental pathogens. We are looking to recruit new inspectors and we will be looking to get some veterinary microbiology experience brought in to the team. They will not be used for all inspections but they will be used to train and motivate other inspectors to get them up to speed with what it means to be working with a particular veterinary micro-agent.

  Q105  Chairman: Is this a flaw at the moment in the system? I do not mean that in a negative sense but is there a gap?

  Dr Penrose: If you are dealing with pathogens and micro-organisms, our inspectors are very competent at keeping these things contained, whether it be a human virus or a fungus or a bacterium. We need that contained within the systems. We are used to inspecting the facilities and systems used to keep those contained. On the route of transmission we can get up to speed quite quickly in terms of how it is likely to escape, so we can focus on that when we do our inspection. We have identified that we need to buy that in in terms of recruiting somebody and we are working to do that.

  Q106  Dr Gibson: Do you have a map of all the laboratories and centres that have dangerous pathogens there? Do you mark them out of ten? Do you have a league table with them or are they all in the same league as far as you are concerned? Are they all up to speed or do you have good ones and bad ones?

  Dr Logan: Clearly with any organisations you have good ones and bad ones.

  Q107  Chairman: Tell us a bad one.

  Dr Logan: Or should I say you have very good and not so good? We rate our inspections and we target organisations. When we have been looking at doing some mapping out of organisations for this Committee, there is a small-ish number of organisations that have a lot of the capacity for level three and level four. Obviously at level four, as we have indicated in some of the evidence we have given to you so far, there are ten organisations in total. There are another two high security disease isolation units. Obviously we will be focusing a lot of our attention on those organisations. In the next level down, the Russell Group of universities for example tend to be the main ones. The main grouping in the top 15 or 20 universities has most of the capacity at CL3. Two universities have 84 level three laboratories between them. It tends to be focused there and it does make it much easier to get a handle on what is going on and to work with those organisations to ensure that standards are kept high.

  Dr Gibson: Do you keep the good ones and the bad ones secret within the department?

  Q108  Chairman: You wish you had not said that now.

  Dr Logan: I am sorry I was drawn into using the term. We do not have bad ones, I do not think. Realistically, we go and inspect them. We do occasionally have to serve improvement notices. We have in the past served prohibition notices on organisations and we tend to find that when you take enforcement action against an organisation it raises the standards very rapidly in that organisation. There are always organisations where improvement can be made and that is really what I was referring to. With most of the capacity at level three, we do focus resources on the higher containment end and most of the capacity in a small-ish number of organisations is reasonably easy to keep a good handle on in terms of what is going on.

  Q109  Mr Boswell: I am interested in the implications of the liaison between you in terms of epidemiology if there is an outbreak of disease. It happens that I have been one way or another round and about MAFF type issues for about 40 years and my immediate reaction when I saw the reports of foot and mouth in the animal population was to say, "I bet it is Pirbright." Without wishing to say, "I told you so" that is what happened because one is aware these things can happen. I do not want to reopen that but can we be assured that when you are keeping the list—and that will change over time—there will be the closest possible linkages with Defra and indeed also your colleagues in the Department of Health in relation to human pathogens so that, if something strange happens, somebody can at least eliminate the accidental release route and look for other possible causes for an epidemic?

  Dr Penrose: From working with Defra, we endeavour to continue to maintain that relationship. We have been working very closely with Ruth and colleagues to identify the laboratories that we are taking on. We will work very closely with the security services that have a separate list in terms of national security. We update those on an annual basis as to whether anything has changed from our intelligence. I guess it is fair to say that your question about the Department of Health is something that we need to work on, in terms of improving our relationship with the Health Protection Agency. That is something we have identified and are working closely on. We share information with ACDP and SACGM as well so, yes, we will work very closely with colleagues on the regulatory framework.

  Q110  Dr Gibson: Could you be missing some sites that were there before COSHH in 2002 for example? Could they have slipped through your net? How would you know about them anyway?

  Dr Penrose: It is a very good question. We have been looking at this. There is always a possibility we could but I do not think in practice we have. All the centres that need to be registered with us are registered with us.

  Q111  Dr Gibson: Do you check on people who get research grants for example who say they are going to work on an organism, or not?

  Dr Penrose: We do. We look at websites and research interests when we prepare for visits. We look and see what the department is working on and what the particular research is working on. You might find some smaller biotech companies that will start up working on quite low risk GM issues that have failed to maybe register as quickly as they should have done but certainly at three and four I think we have a very good handle on all the organisations that work with those.

  Q112  Dr Gibson: There could be one or two that slip through at any one moment?

  Dr Penrose: Certainly not at four. At three we really do not think there are any.

  Q113  Dr Gibson: What about the frequency of the inspections and the average time that you do them? In London it is easy; you just get the tube.

  Dr Logan: At level four we have a commitment to inspect annually. For containment level three we have said every three years they will be inspected. We said in the previous answer that a lot of capacity is set in a number of organisations such as the bigger universities and so forth. As an organisation starting to work on what we call intervention plans, we work with the organisation. We meet with them and set a plan of how we will interact with them, who the contacts are, what training is going to go on. A lot of the time we tend to do it through that and we will sample within that organisation to check on the status.

  Q114  Dr Gibson: Is the frequency really not determined by the number of staff you have? I seem to remember motion after motion about HSE not having enough staff and it just got worse. It does not get any better.

  Dr Logan: We focus our resources primarily on a risk basis. By targeting the levels three and four we can focus.

  Q115  Dr Gibson: You have enough people to do that every year?

  Dr Logan: We have enough to meet out targets at the moment, particularly when we have taken on the three new staff that we are looking to recruit.

  Q116  Dr Gibson: The thing we do not often talk about in health and safety is near misses. Do you record them as well or do you hear of them?

  Dr Penrose: We do. There is a separate set of regulations that requires accidents and injuries to be reported. One of those is dangerous occurrences. We have given a lot of guidance on what we mean by a dangerous occurrence. That is if there is any loss of containment or any accidental spillage. Compliance in the sector is very good. People do tend to report quite a lot of things, even if it is a slip in a laboratory or somebody has fallen over by the Coke machine that was outside the laboratory. We do feel that the reporting mechanisms are good and well understood.

  Q117  Dr Gibson: Are they anonymous?

  Dr Penrose: No.

  Q118  Dr Gibson: They get a yellow card or a red card as far as the department is concerned?

  Dr Penrose: Yes. We will use that intelligence. We will either investigate it if it is worthy of investigation or follow it up or close it down. It is used to factor into the rating system.

  Q119  Dr Gibson: Do you think you would increase your figures if they were anonymous? There is a tendency in that culture not to report things because you do get the finger pointed at you and you feel shamefaced.

  Dr Logan: You do sometimes get accidents or complaints made by members of staff. If a complaint is made anonymously we would follow that up in a way that maintains the anonymity of the person who has reported it and we will feed back to them. We have had a number of occasions where that has occurred.

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