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June 30, 2008

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HSE needs extra resources for new role, MPs warn

The HSE must be given more resources so it can regulate effectively on the use of animal pathogens. So says a report by a group of MPs, who also support a call made by former HSC chair, Sir Bill Callaghan, for a simplified and unified regulatory framework for human and animal pathogens based on risk assessment.

Publishing its findings last week on the state of biosecurity in UK research laboratories, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee was struck by a “lack of coordination between organisations which sponsor and run high-containment laboratories”.

However, it describes the new enforcement framework introduced in the wake of the 2007 Foot and Mouth outbreak at the Pirbright laboratory in Surrey as a “positive step”, provided the new regulator, the HSE, is given more resources to meet the task. It also calls on the HSE to cooperate with the previous regulator, Defra, to ensure it has the necessary veterinary expertise for this new role.

Following the Pirbright incident, Sir Callaghan was asked by the Government to review the regulatory system for governing the handling of animal pathogens, and Defra’s role as regulator under the Specified Animal Pathogens Order 1998 (SAPO). Sir Callaghan identified the existing regulations as “complex and disjointed”, and concluded that Defra was not in a position to act as an independent regulator in this area, owing to its lack of technical expertise and limited resources.

Sir Callaghan proposed a new, unified regulatory framework for human and animal pathogens based on risk assessment, with a common set of containment measures developed by the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP). He also advised that the HSE should be the competent authority, a role that it assumed in April this year.

While urging the Government to ensure that the regulatory system is simplified as far as possible, the committee’s report accepts that some specialist areas, such as counter-terrorist inspection, could be better administered separately, in line with the common framework. The MPs also recommend that the new unified framework should be a permissioning regime rather than based on a less-stringent notification model. The former would involve laboratories needing to gain approval from the HSE before they can start work, in cases concerning high-level containment of pathogens.

To make this regime work effectively, the committee believes it necessary for the HSE to introduce clear guidelines as to whether organisations notify the regulator at a laboratory, site or organisational level. It also urges the HSE to build relationships with those that may require access to this type of information, such as animal and public health authorities, and security services.

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