Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-379)
MP, IAN PEARSON
MP, RT HON
21 APRIL 2008
Q360 Dr Iddon: In Germany the Committee
is aware that there is a large animal facility and I understand
that scientists in this country wanted to build a similar facility
at Pirbright but that it has been struck out because of the increased
cost that that would bring to the scheme. Do you believe that
we need a large animal facility at category four in this country
to either carry out a post mortem or carry out research
on large animals such as horses, cattle and so on?
Ian Pearson: I think it is for
the experts to come to conclusions about whether a large animal
facility that would be able to be at a containment level to tackle
dangerous pathogens is needed.
Dr Iddon: I think they have come to the
conclusion that one is needed and a request was made to build
one at Pirbright. That is my understanding.
Chairman: We understand that it was turned
Q361 Dr Iddon: It has been struck
out because of the cost.
Ian Pearson: I am not sited on
the particular thing that something has been struck out. I do
not understand where that is coming from. I thought the case for
whether there needed to be a large animal facility was still something
that was under consideration. If I have any better information
on that, I am happy to write to the Committee on it.
Q362 Mr Boswell: On the operational
practice in the future, if a director of an institute, be it Pirbright,
be it one in the human health sector or otherwise, is conscious
perhaps as a result of ageing facilities of some biosecurity hazard
and this is not a particular affection of his or hers but is confirmed
by the HSEand there is clearly a debate about thatand
if the area of work is one which you regard as a strategic priority
within government, either for human or animal health or for some
other wider reasons, can we be fairly certain that that need for
capital expenditure will be treated as in effect a contingency
that will be advanced up as against the possibility either that
the work will cease or that it will continue and be done on a
wing and a prayer with people's fingers crossed?
Ian Pearson: There are a lot of
ifs in that question which make it very difficult to answer. In
general terms, if a director of a research institute as you suggest
has concerns about the biosecurity of his site, I think it would
be the responsibility of that director to report them to the Health
and Safety Executive or their appropriate regulator to make sure
that there is a thorough inspection that takes place and that
any improvement notices or remedial action that needs to be taken
is taken. Obviously if this was a research institute that was
financially supported through one of the Research Councils, then
they would want as part of the normal process to put in a bid
to the Research Councils for the necessary capital funding to
undertake that work. That is how it would happen in normal circumstances.
Dawn Primarolo: If one of the
class four laboratories within the HPA failed either on health
and safety on the biosafety side and/or the security side, it
cannot function. It is closed. My understanding from the human
pathogen HPA work is that that cannot happen.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: One would
hope that these things would not only emerge at the last minute
but that the process of regulation and engagement would have spotted
it earlier, but it is absolutely right. If the system was not
fit for purpose, then some form of improvement or prohibition
notice could be served. If it were in Crown ownership, then there
are parallel processes.
Q363 Mr Boswell: It would be ultimately
for ministers who had the national interest in mind to respond
to that by, if necessary, making the capital funds available on
an emergency basis if it had arisen?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The issue
of improvement notices and prohibition notices would certainly
not be for ministers. That would be for individual inspectors.
Q364 Mr Boswell: Once issued, the
response would be in the hands of ministers?
Ian Pearson: Regulators will shut
it if it is not safe to be operated. It would be up to us to take
action to ensure that we provide the funding to make it safer.
Q365 Mr Cawsey: During the course
of this inquiry we learned about the MRC considering to move their
work from the National Institute for Medical Research into a brand
new facility in the centre of London. It did lead us to speak
to a number of people who we have taken evidence from through
the inquiry as to how wise it is to have a large laboratory dealing
with dangerous pathogens in the centre of a city, London or anywhere
else for that matter. I think it is fair to say that we have had
a whole different series of views, but Professor Griffin when
he spoke to us as part of his policy said he thought it ought
to be avoided, frankly, and it would be better to keep them out
of large conurbations. I just wondered whether there was any view
on whether they should be permitted.
Ian Pearson: Firstly, no decision
has been taken at all on what biosecurity facilities should be
provided at the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.
They are still very much at the design stage and it would be up
to Sir Paul Nurse and the community to make appropriate recommendations
about how the project is taken forward in terms of the containment
level that might be required for the science that they want to
conduct there. I would not want to prejudge any of those decisions
in the future. I just offer the observation that there are more
than a dozen cities around the world where containment level four
facilities do operate. I am not aware that there are any security
or biosecurity issues as a result of those. One of the things
we have done is to ask George Griffin to comment on this as part
of the work that he is doing and we would want to consider the
evidence that he produces when he comes up with his report.
Q366 Mr Cawsey: Given the increasing
role in the HSE in the regulation of all of this, do you think
perhaps they should be required to give approval for a location
of a proposed build?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I do not
think that should necessarily follow. It does depend upon the
circumstances. We come back to the point we have touched upon
quite a lot this afternoon about responsibility for biosecurity.
It does not rest with the HSE. It rests with those who own and
operate and run the facility. That is the right balance. Certainly
there is a role for the HSE in terms of the design and how the
facility is operated but the key role in all of this is in making
sure that there is effective biosecurity. Bill Callaghan recommended
that the process should try to be as close to zero as is possible
in terms of handling of risks. I think that does rest with the
Q367 Mr Cawsey: Given the review
of level four facilities, where they are and who runs them, is
there a view on whether they should be restricted to the government
sector or should universities be allowed to run them?
Ian Pearson: Universities already
run a range of containment facilities. They run literally hundreds
of containment level three facilities at the moment and I do not
think there is any reason to believe that universities are an
less reliable than a government institute when it comes to running
containment level four facilities.
Q368 Mr Cawsey: One of the reasons
might simply be the old question of costs. Some of the evidence
we have been looking at looked at the idea of centralised facilities
because otherwise, with lots of small facilities, it is a very
expensive way of providing them. They are often under-utilised
and perhaps really high containment laboratories should be more
centralised, where people could come in and use them as they need
them. Is that a view that you are considering?
Ian Pearson: That is a very fair
point. One of the things that the review will look at specifically,
as I understand it, is centralisation and whether centralisation
makes sense in the broader, strategic sense. These things are
hugely expensive facilities and it is right that they are used
in the most effective way. That might well mean having them in
relatively few locations rather than spread around.
Q369 Chairman: You mentioned earlier
the issue of governance. Clearly the Callaghan Review, when it
looked at what had happened at Pirbright, was criticallet
us put it that wayof the fact that you had Merial and the
Institute for Animal Health who did not seem to talk to each other
in terms of biosecurity. I wonder if that is what you meant by
governance. Indeed, is the government planning to do anything
across different ministerial teams about ensuring that we do have
a level of governance which does not in fact have different organisations
on the same site not being able to speak to each other effectively.
Ian Pearson: That was not what
I was particularly talking about but you are right to say that
there is a triangle here with the regulator, the Institute of
Animal Health at Pirbright and Merial. It is important that we
learn the lessons for all the organisations as part of the process.
I was specifically talking about one of the recommendations in
the Beringer Review about governance arrangements, which is recommendation
five where it says that, in line with the previous wishes of the
IAH governing bodies, BBSRC should take over direct responsibility
for the governance of the Institute of Animal Health and as an
interim measure to resolve the current ambiguity of governance
in recognition of the scale of change facing IAH, " . . .
we recommend that the IAH governing body should invite BBSRC to
give them a corporate trustee for the Institute of Animal Health."
Q370 Chairman: Some of us will be
surprised that that is not the case.
Ian Pearson: My understanding
is that the charity that is currently the body corporate for Pirbright
will be making a decision tomorrow on this and inviting BBSRC
to be a corporate trustee and therefore to take over and clarify
arrangements. It is obviously a matter for those who run the board
of the charity.
Q371 Chairman: Would you be supportive?
Ian Pearson: I would be very supportive
and certainly the BBSRC I know is very supportive of this. It
has been talking to the IAH governing body about this. This will
clarify arrangements for the short term. There then needs to be
a decision taken about the medium term and appropriate governance
arrangements. That is something that again Beringer talks about
and suggests that BBSRC and, through them, ourselves and Defra
will need to take decisions on that within the next 12 months.
BBSRC for its part has said that it wants to finalise a revised
business case within the next six months for Pirbright. Again,
I think it is important that we continue to make progress and
get on with it while discussing what are the most appropriate
arrangements given the work that Pirbright does which both covers
world class research to be expanded by BBSRC, but also important
surveillance activity that is rightly the responsibility of Defra
as a Department. We need to have that conversation. In the meantime,
we are taking the short term steps to clarify the position and
BBSRC are getting on with producing the business case.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: All
the questions have been in effect related to research capacity
but, from Defra's point of view, that is only one side of the
coin. The diagnostic facility for us for outbreaks of animal disease
is absolutely crucial, equally so, and therefore we need to have
a surge capacity both with our own laboratories and our customer
laboratories. Indeed, we have arrangementsI want to say
this by way of reassurance in a way so that it does not seem negativeif
needed with the medical authorities to use human laboratories
when we have a crisis. The question was related to had we got
sufficient capacity. Our review from 2001, given what we have
done with the VLA at Weybridge, the huge amount of expenditure
in there, what we have planned and what we have been able to fund
at Pirbright and the other arrangements that we have made, we
have sufficient capacity. The capacity for us is two ways. It
is the research strategically and of course diagnostically. We
cannot really plan for that in a cubby hole. With avian influenza
and other new diseases that we are probably having to deal with
and that we need to be prepared to deal with, we do need extra
capacity. We feel as though we are okay. There are discussions
around the laboratory network, not just Defra but the other laboratories
as well. It is not just the research capacity; the speed of the
diagnostic capacity is absolutely fundamental if you are dealing
with exotic animal disease outbreaks. The speed is crucial. As
I hope we showed once foot and mouth was notified, we were able
to deal with it much more quickly than we had in 2001 and indeed
with avian influenza as well. That aspect of capacity for us is
just as important as the research capacity.
Q372 Chairman: To be fair, we have
taken a lot of evidence on that issue of surge capacity and had
some very reassuring comments made about that.
Ian Pearson: It is important to
emphasise that it is about research and surveillance, which is
why Beringer talks about a joint national strategy.
Chairman: By way of comment, I do not
think you can divorce the two areas of research and surveillance.
They do go hand in hand and good research leads to good surveillance
and vice versa.
Q373 Mr Boswell: Just a few words
about staff. It would be a common interest that we all think this
depends on a high level of staff. I am bound to say at the levels
that we have talked to people, even quite junior levels, we have
been impressed by their enthusiasm and the fact that obviously,
self-evidently, they are anxious neither to endanger themselves
nor their immediate work colleagues. The first question comes
back a bit to this general question of capacity. What is being
done by government as a whole to ensure a continuity of supply
of well trained scientists in key disciplines and specifically
is there a shortage of trained staff at container level four work
at the HPA? It may not be confined to the HPA. Are we going to
want to do all these things, to face new challenges, and find
we have not got the people to man the facilities we have or need?
Ian Pearson: Shall I say something
on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in general
and Dawn might want to say something on the HPA.
Q374 Chairman: It is a very specific
area though, is it not, in terms of scientists working at level
four and technicians working at level four?
Ian Pearson: It is a very specific
area. Tim's question was a very broad one to start with.
Q375 Mr Boswell: It got narrower.
Ian Pearson: As you know, Tim,
on the broad point, there is a huge amount of work that the government,
working with a range of partners, is doing on the STEM agenda
right through into our schools to make sure that we have kids
who want to do science subjects at GCSE, A level and want to go
through to university. There are some encouraging signs as well
about the number of people applying to go to university to take
Q376 Mr Boswell: Just interrupting
you for a second, while I accept that is extremely important,
clearly even if the overall population rises we need to make sure
that the particular cells that deal with category level four are
adequately populated themselves, do we not?
Ian Pearson: Of course we do but
I just wanted to make a broad science point about the government
investment in science education.
Q377 Chairman: We accept all that
and we applaud it.
Ian Pearson: When it comes to
the specifics in terms of staff at containment level four facilities,
Dawn will probably want to say something on HPA but just in general
training is required to conform to a range of legislation that
is already in place at the moment, whether it is the Health and
Safety at Work Act or the COSHH regulations, both of which are
administered by the Health and Safety Executive. Clearly any research
institute or organisation operating containment level facilities
is going to want to make sure that its staff are adequately and
fully trained to meet the tasks that are required and that they
conform to the high standards of biosafety and security that we
expect. It will be up to those individual establishments to develop
Q378 Mr Boswell: You see it as a
primary post employment training facility, not something which
needs to be done at the undergraduate or postgraduate level?
Ian Pearson: My understanding
is the way these things work is that somebody who might be a principal
investigator, for instance on the research side, as part of their
research training, doctoral, post-doctoral and onwards, will have
built into that training the need to follow good clinical practice
and good measures of biosecurity. Then you will have a range of
people who will be operating at technician level, who will come
into an organisation. They may have come into it with a background
but they may have training requirements and it will be up to that
organisation to assess those and make sure that they have the
adequate training that is involved. At different levels, you will
have different training needs but certainly the people who are
leading a lot of the research projects, as opposed to some of
the surveillance work that is done, would have had extensive training
throughout their career in biosecurity practices, because it is
inbuilt into the whole learning process.
Q379 Mr Boswell: Dawn, do you want
to say something about the HPA?
Dawn Primarolo: Yes. For the HPA
there is not a shortage of staff with regard to the level four
laboratories at the present time. The HPA also do training for
the future. I am sure you appreciate it does take time. They have
their own training of a very high standard, considered the gold
standard, but of course you alluded to the fact that this is highly
specialist work. Even with that training, as with the laboratories
themselves, these are relatively scarce resources though there
is no shortage at the present time. They do train for the future.
It takes time and they do recognise the importance of these resources.
On a separate issue, it is also the responsibility of the HPA
when there are high security infectious diseases and there is
a need for patient care at level four. The HPA keeps staff trained
at all times to that level in case they are needed. I would want
to assure you that there is an active programme there in terms
of assuring staff are trained to the relevant levels. Again, we
are talking about scarce resources here so of course the HPA can
never be and is not complacent on that. It is very actively involved.