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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-172)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q160  Dr Gibson: I was amazed when Debby Reynolds turned up on the telly and not David King. Who made the decision that she would front it?

  Dr Coulson: Front the disease control outbreak?

  Q161  Dr Gibson: Yes.

  Dr Coulson: It has always been the arrangement post 2001 that the chief veterinary officer would run the disease control outbreak but there are now in place a lot of mechanisms for getting scientific advice into the decision making process. During the 2007 outbreak we met with Dave King and Howard Dalton, the government and Defra chief scientific advisers. We had many meetings to discuss the science behind the decisions that were being taken during that outbreak.

  Dr Gibson: I cannot imagine Dave King not wanting to get onto Radio 4 and talk about it.

  Q162  Dr Iddon: What is your view, Defra and HSE, on the placing particularly of category four laboratories in the centre of towns or cities like London, Berlin or Boston? Do you have any strong feelings about that?

  Dr Coulson: Pirbright is sited where it is as much for historical reasons as anything else but we do recognise that, from a practical point of view, you can go to areas where it makes the movement of samples to and from the laboratory easier. Choosing a low livestock density area may be a sensible risk mitigation step, although we rely on biosecurity to prevent a release from the building, not on that approach. From an animal pathogen point of view, it is more the livestock density that might be a factor in siting it. There is also the practical issue about getting planning permission for that type of facility in a new location. That may be quite challenging as well and people have been concerned about it.

  Q163  Dr Iddon: What about the HSE? Are you concerned about these category four facilities being placed in the centre of cities like London?

  Dr Logan: There are currently three facilities in London working at level four and they have done for many years. Our inspection regime and regulatory regime are intended to make sure that they stay contained and do the job they are supposed to do.

  Q164  Dr Iddon: You are not too worried about the facilities being in the centre of cities by the sound of it?

  Dr Logan: It is another risk factor that needs to be considered in how they are controlled, managed and run.

  Q165  Dr Iddon: What about planning approval? Is it right that the local authorities have the final planning approval unless it goes to the Secretary of State for appeal? Do you think that you should be consulted about the planning applications for category three and category four in large conurbations?

  Dr Logan: We are consulted about plans for level four facilities. For level three facilities we encourage people to approach HSE because we have a lot of experience in discussing it with them so they do tend to come to us and talk to us about the facility. There is huge capacity in London currently at level three. These have been operating safely for many years.

  Q166  Dr Iddon: If you were very unhappy about the siting of a category four, do you have the powers to stop it or is it just advice that you give to the planning authority?

  Dr Logan: At the moment we would have the powers to stop the level four facility if we thought it was not going to be able to operate safely.

  Q167  Dr Iddon: Do you agree with the previous panel that it would be preferable if universities did not have category four laboratories but shared the others that exist at the moment or ones that might be built in the future?

  Dr Logan: I am probably going to contradict something I said a few minutes ago but at level four we have certainly had some discussions with a university about the development of a level four facility. One of the arguments cited for that is getting access to level four capacity when they want it is quite difficult. For example, you can book time and you may get bumped from that if something happens, if there is an outbreak somewhere. The other argument is that they do not see any reason why level four should be uniquely in the hands of government rather than universities.

  Q168  Dr Iddon: There is a bit of a discussion we can have there, I guess. What about the present state of category four laboratories? Some of them, I guess, are rather old. Do you think old laboratories can perform as well as new category four laboratories or should some of these old facilities be replaced now? Are they out of date?

  Dr Logan: There is a continuous programme of redeveloping these facilities. The reality is some of the older ones can still do the job but a lot of the equipment maintained is changed within those. We do look at the fabric of the buildings to make sure that they are up to grade and in a lot of them people do recognise that they need to be replaced. That is some of the discussion that is going on for example with the MRC at the moment on new developments.

  Q169  Dr Iddon: If you found a category four or even a category three facility which you regarded as unsafe, would you have the powers to close that particular laboratory down?

  Dr Logan: Yes.

  Q170  Chairman: When Professor Griffin was asked by Dr Iddon about a level four new facility in central London as part of the NIMR development, he indicated that perhaps that would not be a good idea. What worries me is that sends out a message. Where you have level four facilities in urban areas, there is a risk. Is that the message we really want to send out?

  Dr Logan: Obviously that was Professor Griffin's view.

  Q171  Chairman: I am asking you.

  Dr Logan: If I was not here this afternoon I would have been at a meeting at MRC discussing the new facility or their new plans. We are involved in the discussion as an organisation about the siting of those facilities.

  Q172  Chairman: Would you be concerned about a level four facility at St Pancras?

  Dr Logan: As long as it was designed, operated, maintained and run properly, I would not have concerns about it, no.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you all very much indeed for being an absolutely splendid panel. I am sorry if we were a little bit critical of Defra. That is par for the course. Thank you all.

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