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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q140  Mr Boswell: On record keeping and reporting, if it is RIDDOR it requires at least a judgment that a dangerous incident has occurred. Is it in your mind that you might have either a standard format, which would be quite a simple thing, or a protocol which would drive everyone at least to report when something had gone missing?

  Dr Logan: Yes.

  Q141  Mr Boswell: It would seem to me, certainly at level four and presumably level three, potentially a dangerous incident.

  Dr Logan: Yes.

  Q142  Mr Boswell: The other one is about the staff side. We have heard quite a lot about training this afternoon. Is it sufficient that staff working with dangerous pathogens are trained at a local level or should there be nationally or centrally recognised training programmes, minimum standards and so forth? What is your take on that?

  Dr Penrose: Clearly training is something that our inspectors focus on very intensively during their inspections because they are looking at competence and how you define competence. Inspectors need to leave that site assured that the people doing the work are fit to do that work. The regulatory requirement is that it is left to individual organisations and sites as to how they want to train their staff. George Griffin alluded to training for diagnostic staff. In the university setting there is not that legal requirement for all staff to be trained to a common level but as inspectors we make sure we interview staff. We interview PhD students. We will take them away from their line manager to give them the opportunity to say what training they have had and what they understand by the work they are doing and what are the hazards. In practice we find that organisations do train their staff.

  Q143  Mr Boswell: When you are inspecting, do you observe staff in operation?

  Dr Penrose: We do.

  Q144  Mr Boswell: Would they be aware of where you came from? Would you be a visiting academic as far as they were concerned?

  Dr Penrose: If I am talking to somebody I will take them aside and introduce myself and say what I am doing. Through observations and questioning you can get a good feel for what their competence level is. If somebody is quite happy to say, "I have never been trained in this field" we will pursue that. We can observe people and say, "Why are you doing it that way?" You can see by the way the laboratory is set up as to what custom and practice is. By and large people treat this seriously because they are the ones that can get infected, particularly with the human pathogens, because they have their own health and safety and that of colleagues. In terms of the wider initiatives, it is something that has been looked at on a number of occasions in terms of biosafety training and I am aware that there is a group at the Institute for Safety in Technology and Research, a separate group, looking at trying to standardise biological safety and training but it is not mandatory.

  Q145  Mr Boswell: In your reporting now, would you be able to recommend that an individual should undergo some further training on the basis of what you have seen or indeed that some laboratories should be reconfigured on the basis that people are not handling the stuff as you would like to see?

  Dr Penrose: Absolutely. We will give a comment on the training levels that we have observed and we will look at logbooks and training records. If that is not appropriate, we will raise that with the nominated senior manager to rectify.

  Q146  Mr Boswell: To go back to the point you made about a group looking at the idea of common standards, just to be clear, that is something on the whole in principle that you would favour?

  Dr Penrose: Yes. HSE are supporting that initiative.

  Q147  Dr Iddon: Regarding a strategic overview of the number and capacity of CL3 and CL4 laboratories, in your opinion should there be one body that does this? If so, should it be the HSE? I think I should start with Defra first.

  Dr Coulson: One body that oversees the capacity that we have in the UK?

  Q148  Dr Iddon: The capacity and number of CL3 and CL4 laboratories. Should it be one body?

  Dr Coulson: There needs to be a number of people involved. The main customers for the research need to be involved. There is the issue of what we need in order to deliver the outcomes that we need. I have mentioned the exotic disease response and developing new control strategies as part of Defra's need. Obviously the Department of Health will have a view on that. We have heard that for surge capacity in the outbreak of an emergent disease we need to take a view of what the UK has and we certainly have discussions—HSE have been involved in them as well—with the ACDP community and Defra's community about how we might use each other's facilities in a national crisis. We do need to look with these very expensive facilities at how we get the best use out of them for the UK.

  Q149  Dr Iddon: What you are telling me is that there are a lot of different organisations involved. This was the case with marine safety until we had three critical disasters. I will not name them all but one of them was the Torrey Canyon disaster and the government decided that the different units were not talking to one another so they set up one person in one organisation, a SOSREP, a Secretary of State's representative who takes control in an extreme emergency. My question really was: should somebody take the strategic overview and, in an extreme emergency, pull all these organisations together and be responsible for making them work? You did not answer my question, in other words. You just told me who was involved.

  Dr Coulson: There is not somebody with that strategic ability to take control at the moment, as far as I am aware.

  Q150  Dr Iddon: The question was do you think there should be and, if so, should it be the HSE.

  Dr Coulson: At the moment I have not seen that that is a gap. I think the community does work together and talk to each other and the indications we have had from those discussions with people who own other facilities are that they would make them available. If Defra had a new, emerging animal disease and needed to do work in one of the other facilities, a health facility or an MoD facility, I think that would be facilitated at the moment.

  Q151  Dr Iddon: What does the HSE think? Are you agreeing with that proposal or do you disagree with it?

  Dr Logan: I do not think it is the job of the regulator, the people regulating the safety standards in those laboratories, to be looking at having an overview as to whether there is sufficient capacity. There is a lot of capacity at containment level three in particular across the UK. We often see laboratories that are under-utilised. They are containment level three laboratories that are not being used at containment level three because they do not have the work going through them. A lot of different universities and organisations have facilities like that. At containment level four there are ten facilities. There does appear to be a reasonable level of capacity. The only one that was mentioned earlier is ACDP level four large animal capacity and there is probably a decision for Defra and some people in government to be made as to whether that capacity is needed.

  Q152  Chairman: I do not feel that is satisfactory, if I am perfectly frank, from either of you in answer to Dr Iddon's question. Correct me if I am wrong, Dr Coulson. We now appear to have a system whereby nobody really takes a strategic oversight in terms of how much capacity we need. You said you think that there were people who would be able to loan you facilities if there was a serious outbreak but you do not particularly know. Is there a group that comes together to discuss overall capacity? Who brings that group together and who does it report to?

  Dr Coulson: I am not aware that there is a standing group that looks at that because the capacity changes in incremental steps. When we were reviewing the rebuild at Pirbright, a group came together and the central question was: do we need to rebuild the facilities at Pirbright post 2001. Do we need that capability? That group looked at the whole UK situation. It had people from all the various groups and it came to the conclusion that, yes, we did need a national centre and Pirbright was the best place for that. Until there is another new, incremental change in the capability, that group would not come together again.

  Q153  Chairman: Who is this group?

  Dr Coulson: It was an ad hoc group put together by Defra under the deputy chief veterinary officer at the time who ran it, who brought together people from a variety of backgrounds in the containment world who did a review of whether Defra needed to invest.

  Q154  Chairman: Until there is another problem, you do not meet?

  Dr Coulson: That was a specific meeting to decide whether to invest in a rebuild of the facilities at the Pirbright site.

  Chairman: I understand that but the question that Dr Iddon was asking which you did not appear to give a reply to was: do you feel that there ought to be a standing group that meets on a regular basis, whatever "regular" means, in order to assess whether we have sufficient capacity and, if not, to do something about it?

  Q155  Dr Iddon: It would not have to be a group. You have mentioned the chief medical officer. I was thinking in terms of the chief scientific adviser as well. Sir David King took a big interest during the foot and mouth outbreak and I think it was he that pulled a lot of things together and made things happen. If they had not happened, in my opinion, we would not have got on top of that outbreak. I agree with the Chairman. It seems a very unsatisfactory situation where there is no body or organisation having this over-arching look at what is going on in this area.

  Mrs Lysons: There are inter-laboratory networks which meet regularly, which are senior directors of veterinary and medical laboratories. One of our approaches in assessing capacity, particularly if we need more capacity, would be to go to the relevant laboratory that we normally go to and say, "How would you cope with a ten fold increase in the demand?" They would use that network to tell us how they would cope.

  Q156  Mr Boswell: I suspect—tell me if I am wrong—that there are two questions bearing on this which are slightly different. One is what you might call the strategic view of what capacity is needed for research and to assess the progress of these difficult pathogens. The second one is the crash plan you have to adopt when you have a major outbreak and you have to assess a lot of samples and so forth. Can you clarify that that is your understanding and I am not adrift on that? I suspect the inference, looking at the Defra side of the table, is that one way or another—as indeed Pirbright showed in 2001—it is possible to scale up very quickly if it is necessary to do this work. You are not worried about that?

  Dr Coulson: No. My answer was related to the strategic review and there is also this other mechanism for the more tactical review.

  Q157  Mr Boswell: This is more to the HSE side. You did indicate a minute ago that there might well be a surplus of capacity at level three. Given that this is not absolutely cost free—it is expensive for the institutions to maintain; there is the possibility of escape at any one time and we have discussed urban locations for example—is nobody looking at this at all to say that perhaps after all we have more than we need and could we encourage some measure of agreed rationalisation?

  Dr Logan: We have not taken that approach at the moment. We often get approached by organisations that want to set up a new laboratory and we encourage them to come to HSE to talk about commissioning and the standards that would be needed. We point out the difficulties in maintaining a level three facility if they are going to need it.

  Q158  Mr Boswell: For example, there is no brokering function. You could not say, "We know that there is surplus there. Why do you not bolt into that rather than create your own?"?

  Dr Logan: In another organisation?

  Q159  Mr Boswell: Yes.

  Dr Logan: They are all different organisations and that is the difficulty.

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