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
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
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
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
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 listand that will change over timethere
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
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