Background to the report

The UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA’s) health security campus programme aims to enhance and replace UKHSA infrastructure, most importantly its high-containment laboratories, which are essential for protecting the nation against potentially highly infectious diseases.

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Existing UKHSA infrastructure at sites in Porton Down (Wiltshire) and Colindale (North London) are nearing the end of their operational life and, unless properly replaced, the UK would lose this capability.

HM Treasury (HMT) approved an outline business case for the programme in 2015, which estimated the total cost at £530 million and identified a GlaxoSmithKline site in Harlow (Essex) as the preferred site for new facilities, including high-containment laboratories. UKHSA’s predecessor agency Public Health England (PHE) purchased that site for £30 million in 2017.

Since then, however, the programme has not received full business case approval. Total estimated costs have increased significantly, and doubts have emerged as to whether the Harlow site will be utilised, with ministers from the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) asking UKHSA to consider whether replacing infrastructure at existing sites, including at Porton Down, is a viable alternative option.

While full approval of a business case is yet to be given, the programme has spent just over £400 million.

Scope of the report

This report sets out information on key facts and decision points for the programme. It does not seek to examine and report on the overall value for money of the programme but considers key risks to manage.

The report looks at:

  • the early history of the programme, including the case for change
  • the causes of delays in the programme so far
  • what has been achieved at the Harlow site

Concluding remarks

Replacing and modernising UKHSA’s facilities through the programme is of crucial importance to ensure the UK has the capabilities to identify, study and respond to the most dangerous pathogens in the world.

Yet the programme still has no clear decision on where it should be located, despite a site having been purchased in Harlow back in 2017 with an original timeline that would have seen the new site fully operational by 2021.

The government is committed to the programme but has not yet made a decision on its location. Over six years on from purchasing the Harlow site, very little progress has been made and just over £400 million has been spent against an initial total cost estimate of £530 million. Revised timelines show that, at best, the programme might be fully operational in Harlow by 2036.

PHE’s original estimate of the programme cost was plainly wrong, and the full implications emerging from design development, as well as the inclusion of contingencies, VAT and inflation, led to significant cost increases through to the programme business case in 2020, which was approved in principle by HMT.

The latest total programme cost estimate as of the 2023 business case is £3.2 billion, with changes to the scope and delays to the timetable, with an ensuing impact on inflation, contributing significantly to pushing up costs.

We have seen similar challenges in other major government programmes, where decisions to proceed were not accompanied by sufficiently robust and realistic assessments of affordability.

Since 2022, UKHSA has suspended all main construction suppliers on the programme, and the programme has essentially stopped. UKHSA has been asked repeatedly by HMT, DHSC and relevant ministers to re-evaluate whether Harlow is the best value for money option.

It has consistently concluded that it is, but that it is no longer deliverable for the £2 billion the programme estimated it would cost in 2020. There needs to be clarity between all parties as to the way forward on this programme otherwise further delays and increases to costs are inevitable.

DHSC considers that delays to the programme have not affected the UK’s resilience to dangerous diseases in the short term, as UKHSA continues to maintain and manage risks at both the Porton Down and Colindale sites.

In our view, as things stand, the UK’s future resilience to dangerous diseases and value for taxpayers’ money are both being undermined by failures in decision-making for a key part of the national infrastructure.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (28 Feb 2024)

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