Redevelopment of Defra’s animal health infrastructure – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committee of Public Accounts

Related inquiry: Redevelopment of Defra’s animal health infrastructure

Date Published: 16 November 2022

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Animal diseases pose a significant threat to UK health, trade, farming and rural communities. We are concerned that the Government is not sufficiently prioritising this threat. The UK’s main animal health facility at Weybridge has been left to deteriorate to an alarming extent. The risk of a zoonotic (animal sourced) disease is real and the consequences can be devastating as the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001 and most recently Avian Influenza have shown. COVID-19 has also highlighted the breadth of impact a zoonotic disease outbreak can have across society. Currently the UK faces threats from on-going diseases such as Bovine Tuberculosis, new potential diseases such as African Swine Fever, and diseases affecting domestic pets including rabies.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA’s) Weybridge site is the UK’s primary science capability for managing threats from animal diseases. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (the Department) has comprehensively failed in its historical management of the Weybridge site, which has deteriorated due to inadequate management and under investment. This has left the site vulnerable to a major breakdown which would severely impact the APHA’s operations including its ability to effectively respond to disease outbreaks. The APHA is confident it could currently respond to a Category 3 animal disease outbreak (the middle category on a scale from one to five), but could only do this by pausing some of its important research due to limited laboratory capacity at Weybridge. However, it would struggle with higher category outbreaks, or more than one outbreak at the same time.

The Department’s Weybridge redevelopment programme is currently estimated to cost £2.8 billion over 15 years, though HM Treasury has not yet agreed to fund this in full. The Department has found it challenging to quantify and value the benefits of the Programme and there remains significant uncertainty over the Department’s cost estimate. Failure to secure adequate additional funding would mean revisiting the scope of the Programme and the extent of redevelopment at Weybridge.

The Weybridge redevelopment programme is high risk with a major redevelopment taking place on an important operational site. While the Department has now got many of the right elements in place for managing the Programme, it still needs to ensure it has appropriate staff capability and capacity to manage the Programme effectively, including particularly the commercial risks.