• Laboratory requires ‘critical’ repairs
• Consequences could be devastating
• Doing nothing risks the unthinkable
MPs have urged the government to invest more in animal disease prevention – warning that a serious outbreak could devastate the UK livestock industry.
It follows a National Audit Office report which warns of an urgent need to redevelop the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) headquarters in Weybridge, Surrey. The APHA laboratory manages the threat post by disease to the UK.
An animal disease outbreak could have a major impact on the UK food industry, trade, and public health, says the report. The Weybridge site “needs major investment to continue functioning” and prevent an outbreak from happening.
The ageing building lacks laboratory capacity and requires major repairs, warns the document. Some £2.8bn is needed to transform the site and implement a new animal health programme. But the Treasury has formally approved only £1.2bn.
Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier MP said the centre had “lacked capital investment over many years and it’s now at a critical stage”. Referring to the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis, she added: “Repercussions of this not going well are very significant”.
Cumbria MP Neil Hudson represents the Penrith and the Border constituency – one of the areas hardest hit by foot-and-mouth in 2001. Last month he attended a Public Accounts Committee evidence session.
During the session, Mr Hudson quizzed civil servants and other experts about the risks facing the country if the Weybridge site was not adequately financed. Speaking afterwards, he said: “The evidence we heard was really alarming.”
Mr Hudson added: “It was very worrying. While £2.8bn is undoubtedly a massive sum, the cost of an animal disease outbreak down the line could be astronomically higher – just look at the effects of Covid on our nation,.
“I am under no illusions about the challenges currently facing the public purse but hearing the evidence given today, I urge the government to take notice. If they do not, the consequences could be devastating.”
Mr Hudson said the issue was personal to him because he worked as a vet during the 2001 foot-and-mouth cull, witnessing scenes he never wanted to see again. “My decision to become a politician was directly impacted by these experiences.
“There is a perception that DEFRA is outgunned by other departments, but sessions like today’s drive home the need for a strong, fully financed department able to prevent diseases and provide resolute action when disaster strikes.”
The Public Accounts Committee will produce an official report into the redevelopment of Defra’s animal health infrastructure this coming autumn. The government will then respond at a later date.