Government ‘Failings’ Leave UK Vulnerable To Animal Disease Outbreak, Report Warns

Improper practices at a major health facility could spell disaster for the UK


3 Minutes Read

Pigs cramped together in a factory farm Factory farms are breeding grounds for disease - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

An investigation has found that the UK’s primary animal disease center is unlikely to be able to manage any major zoonotic (animal-sourced) outbreaks. And consequently, that the government is not doing enough to protect the UK from the “significant threat” posed by animal diseases.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in Weybridge has been classified as vulnerable to systemic operational failure. The Public Accounts Committee (which oversees government spending efficiencies) conducted an inquiry into the facility. It found that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had “comprehensively failed” to run the site to the necessary standard.

This was supported by evidence of more than 1,000 “single points of failure” at the facility. All could prove critical in the event of an animal disease outbreak.

As it stands, the APHA is ill-equipped to handle anything more serious than the current avian flu outbreak. The Public Accounts Committee raises this as a major cause for concern given that multiple zoonotic disease threats are mounting. These include potential outbreaks of African swine fever and bovine tuberculosis.

Chickens in a factory farm
Adobe Stock The UK is currently experiencing what’s thought to be its worst outbreak of avian flu of all time

UK government and zoonotic disease risk

Defra previously announced plans to improve the APHA facilities. It was recently revealed that £2.8 billion has been budgeted for the task. However, this was a 15-year course of remedial action expected to be completed in 2036. In the meantime, emergency repairs and small improvements are being made to mitigate the likelihood of zoonotic disease outbreaks. 

The last serious incident at the site occurred in 2014. There was a power outage at some of its buildings containing animals infected with bacteria and viruses. The report found that this could have led to the escape of a pathogen. 

“These [zoonotic] diseases are devastating for our food production systems, the economy and, when they jump the species barrier to humans as Covid-19 did, to our whole society,” Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee said in a statement. 

“[The UK] Government must get a grip on this crucial and much-delayed redevelopment programme. When it comes to the safety of our country we cannot afford more of the waste and delivery failures that continue to characterize far too many major projects.”

Hillier also noted her disappointment that the government allowed APHA to fall into such a state of disrepair following the UK’s 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, that saw 6.5 million animals slaughtered.

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