Damning report calls for a bio-secure zone at leak lab

A permanent bio-security zone should be set up around Pirbright, the government laboratories at the centre of the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak, says a damning independent report.

The "creeping degradation of standards" which led to last summer's FMD outbreak in Surrey must never be allowed to happen again, concluded the report, describing the animal health laboratory, from where the disease escaped into local livestock, as a "shabby and dilapidated" place where regulation and risk management were poor.

In his most damning conclusion, Iain Anderson, the chairman of the inquiry, said lessons from an earlier outbreak in 2001 had simply not been learned. "In allowing live FMD virus to escape from Pirbright there was a failure to observe the first lesson flowing from the 2002 report, maintaining vigilance," he said, calling on Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to "consider the case for a standing zone around Pirbright with higher levels of surveillance and greater awareness-raising of the potential risk".

About the Government's decision, based on risk assessment, to lift the restrictions around Pirbright when it did, the report said: "It is still important to record that this decision was wrong. It extended the timescale needed to stamp out the disease and it added extra costs."

The NFU deputy president, Meurig Raymond said the outbreak caused more than £100m of damage to the industry and £50m to the taxpayer. "To apologise, as Hilary Benn has done repeatedly, is one thing," he said. "To help the industry recover, as he has signally failed to do, is very much another."

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found the leak of FMD virus was caused by a tree root damaging a laboratory pipe containing the virus. Farmers were furious that the outbreak was caused by lax bio-security on the site shared with a private laboratory run by Merial.

Merial's licence was withdrawn, then restored, but two weeks later, on 22 November, 2007, a faulty valve at the Merial plant led to an leak of the FMD virus into the shared drainage and effluent treatment system where it was contained. "This unfortunate incident also revealed a continuing weakness in communications between IAH and Merial," said the report yesterday.

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