The shake-up and closure of public health laboratories in England have triggered concerns over security, public safety and expense by Unite.
The government recently announced its £350 million decision that Colindale should join Porton Down in moving to the former GSK campus at Harlow, Essex.
Unite described the move as ‘bad news’ and urged that ministers reconsider the implications of concentrating these Public Health England (PHE) facilities, which will be focused on countering bio-terrorism and deadly diseases, in one place at a time of heightened security concerns.
According to PHE, the Harlow site is not expected to start operating until 2019 and won’t be fully operational until 2024.
“The majority of our 300 members at Colindale will be very upset and disillusioned, as they do not wish to either move or commute to Harlow,” said Unite regional officer Dorothy Fogg.
“They are also very surprised that such a large sum of public money is being spent on the relocation, while at the same time very severe cuts to both staff and resources are being made.”
In September, it was announced that 750-strong workforce at the Porton site in Wiltshire would also move to Harlow.
Unite is very concerned about the severe disruption to the work/life balance for the Colindale and Porton Down scientific and technical staff, who face a move to Essex – an area with runaway house prices.
“The GSK site in Harlow, next to a main road, will have high containment laboratories relatively close to the perimeter,” Fogg noted. “Is this really sensible at a time of heightened security concerns?
“The introduction of dangerous pathogens in an urban environment, and the development of the supporting biological investigation services may attract local community concerns,” she said. “The Porton Down site, near Salisbury, is very remote and has a high-level of security.
“The moves from Porton Down and Colindale will break-up decades of expertise and skills that the staff have built up,” Fogg went on to say. “Staff retention at the GSK site will also be a problem due to a greater range of alternative employers in the area, such as Silicon Fen centred on Cambridge.”
Recently, Unite protested at the proposed closure of the PHE labs in Birmingham and Preston; with York remaining as the only such lab in the Midlands and north of England.
Unite has argued that any delay because of these two closures in analysing results could pose a problem, in certain circumstances, to the public health of the local population.
“Three years ago there were about 19 labs all around England now being reduced, with the proposed closure of another two, to just Colindale, Porton and York – for the time being,” Fogg said.
“This is a major blow for food water and environmental hygiene and to our members across the country who have been in a destabilised state due to the constant and stressful reorganisation within PHE.”