Costs soar as report highlights uncertainty over UK Health Agency campus in Harlow

Health / Wed 28th Feb 2024 at 09:34am

THE UK’s future resilience to dangerous pathogens – ranging from Ebola to COVID-19 – is being undermined by decision-making failures regarding a planned health security campus in Harlow, according to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report.2

For eighteen years, government has been considering how to replace its high-containment laboratories in Porton Down, Wiltshire and Colindale, North London, which form part of the UK’s essential health security infrastructure.3 The majority of the facilities at Porton Down are now over 55 years old, and replacing the high-containment laboratories is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.

In 2015, HM Treasury (HMT) approved Public Health England (PHE)’s outline business case for a new £530 million national integrated hub for public health science in Harlow.

Funding for this programme was to be used to purchase and adapt a site in Harlow then owned by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and to relocate high-containment laboratories and workforce from sites in Porton Down and Colindale. The Department of Health authorised the purchase of the site for £30 million in 2017.4

Yet there has been little progress since, despite the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and its predecessors spending just over £400 million on the programme up to the end of October 2023 – around 75% of the initial £530 million cost estimate. On top of the £30 million spent on the site, these costs have largely centred on design, revenue,5project/programme support and management, and construction (at £91 million, £89 million, £76 million and £66 million respectively).

By 2023, the cost estimate had risen to £3.2 billion – £2.7 billion (or over 500%) more than the approximation in the 2014-2015 outline business case. Contributing factors to this increase include changes to the scope of the programme, timetable delays and inflation.

The programme is now at an impasse after UKHSA concluded in 2023 that the Harlow hub cannot be built within the £2 billion that HMT has indicated it is willing to fund and that the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) wants to stick to. UKHSA has been asked to explore remaining in Porton Down as an alternative but has consistently assessed Harlow as the best value-for-money option for bringing together and consolidating multiple sites.

The long-standing uncertainty surrounding the preferred location for the programme caused UKHSA to suspend all its main construction suppliers in 2022 at a cost of over £2 million after DHSC reprioritised funding away from the programme, in agreement with UKHSA and HMT. The agency has not been in a position to remobilise its suppliers and since 2022 only minimal enabling work has taken place at the Harlow site.

UKHSA’s latest assessment is that if the programme remains in Harlow, it will become fully operational in 2036 at the earliest. This is 15 years later than the timeline put together by PHE in its 2014-2015 outline business case.

Head of NAO, Gareth Davies said: “In 2006, government determined that replacing and modernising its high-containment laboratories was critically important to ensure the UK has the capabilities to identify, study and respond to the most dangerous pathogens in the world.

“In the eighteen years since, it has made very little progress at significant cost. Unrealistic cost estimates, uncertainty over scope and location and escalating forecast costs have undermined both the UK’s future resilience to public health emergencies and value for money.

“UKHSA, DHSC and HMT must act decisively to agree a way forward for the programme and avoid further delays and cost increases in replacing this essential health security infrastructure.”

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7 Comments for Costs soar as report highlights uncertainty over UK Health Agency campus in Harlow:

Guy Flegman
2024-02-28 12:26:33

The unfortunate truth here is that the Harlow site would fail the most basic of risk assessments for high containment work due to its location. High containment work should be done underground or in a valley as the worst case scenario is the building collapsing and if you are in a hole in the ground or valley there is a better chance of containing any contamination, putting it on top of a hill is simply foolhardy at best. Surely it would be better to use this site as expansion of the existing hospital instead of building a new one where there is poor access. You might even find the proposed site for the new hospital is more suitable for public health England.

2024-02-28 12:27:47

And where in all this is our local MP? Time and time he has been challenged to push through a decision on this matter, but has instead insisted sticking to the government narrative that all is well and the development would go ahead. This amounts to at least 10 years of business/development opportunity cost to the town and, in the meantime, Oxford, Cambridge and Stevenage are converting supermarkets into lab space… Mr Halfon I’m afraid this is another clear example of how you have dropped the ball and failed Harlow ( SFG school and the Hospital being just to additional high profile examples). Time for change!

David Forman
2024-02-28 13:57:02

An idea of what went wrong is given on pages 19 and 22 of the NAO report. Paragraph 2.6 on p19 says: "In 2016, PHE changed the scope of the programme to accommodate an additional estimated 800 staff previously based in London at the Harlow site. This broadening of scope contributed to delays to design work, and the programme team identified this increase in scope as one of the causes of increased revenue costs in 2019." Then paragraph 2.9 on p22 says: "Since then, every time PHE/UKHSA has revisited its options analysis, it has always concluded that Harlow remains the best value for money option. Despite this, HM Treasury and Department for Health & Social Care ministers have asked PHE/UKHSA for further consideration of the Porton Down option on more than one occasion. The majority of buildings at Porton Down are over 55 years old. Safety and security requirements in recent years at Porton Down have led to increased investment in that site, and there was also £41 million of investment in the site through the Vaccine Taskforce up until 2022-23." It looks like Conservative government ministers can't work it out that Harlow is the best option!

Nicholas Taylor
2024-02-28 14:20:14

Just another example of abject failure by this Tory Government, wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of our money on projects which were clearly never thought through properly. Hs2, failed MOD contracts, failed IT contracts within the NHS, the list goes on and on. This move to Harlow should be stopped in it's tracks once and for all. We then don't need thousands of homes built around Harlow and we have a site where the new hospital could be built. Think what this money could have been spent on in Harlow instead, roads as smooth as billiard tables, all young people given free access to leisure and cultural facilities, indeed a wholly council owned Town centre which could be regenerated how residents want.

David Forman
2024-02-28 14:48:54

Nicholas should read paragraph 2.12 on page 24 that shows continued dither by Government ministers: "At a meeting with DHSC ministers in December 2023, UKHSA and DHSC were instructed to spend the early part of 2024 working up further details on the Porton Down option. UKHSA had given the advice that the Harlow option offered the best return on investment, despite having a higher initial cost than other options as it had the potential to deliver economic value as well as cost savings along with levelling-up impacts for the local area. However, ministers were still keen to see more on options that fit within a £2 billion funding package." In paragraphs 2.13 and 2.14 on page 26 Government ministers introduce more delay by trying to include MHRA, Ministry of Defence and DEFRA laboratory facilities into the project.

Alderman Durcan
2024-02-29 13:11:30

It appears yet another broken promise. A complete mess and a clear worry about the future of PAH.

Tom Fowler
2024-03-03 10:35:07

It's time for gov't to cut their losses on the Harlow white elephant scheme. It's clear to anyone that it'll be cheaper to renovate the facility that, while aged, is still operational in Wiltshire. Got to be most cost efficient to upgrade on site rather than upgrade a distant site and then move operations to it?? Also, don't know about anyone else but I'd rather deadly viruses be handled in the middle of a Wiltshire military range than on an industrial estate just outside our town!!

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