Unions condemn Public Health England after it announces move from Porton Down to Harlow

Tim Lezard Europe, UK, Unite,

Porton Down to HarlowBosses at Porton Down have been criticised after “forgetting” to tell workers their jobs were moving 120 miles.

Unite says Public Health England (PHE) ‘acted in bad faith’ by not informing the trade unions before the announcement that its facilities will be moved from Porton Down in Wiltshire to Harlow in Essex.

Unions were scathing that the unions, representing the 750-strong workforce at the Wiltshire site, were not alerted to the announcement by the chancellor George Osborne of the £350 million investment at GlaxoSmithKline facilities in Harlow.

With the announcement also impacting the PHE facility in Colindale, north London, Unite called on PHE to provide assurances to staff and recognise that many do not want to move to Harlow.

Unite is very concerned about the severe disruption to the work/life balance for scientific and technical staff, who face a move to Essex – an area with runaway house prices.

The union has also warned about security concerns over the transfer of facilities at Porton Down – the UK centre for research into countering bio-terrorism and deadly diseases – to Essex.

In an email to PHE on Thursday, Unite regional officer Dorothy Fogg said: “I am extremely disappointed that the Science Hub Sub Group (representing the unions)  were not invited and involved in the meetings held  today as this flies directly in the face of partnership working which I believed the trade unions, at least, were working towards.

“I must stress that the actions today have seriously damaged my view on the commitment by PHE to partnership working going forward.”

The unions were belatedly briefed on Friday.

Prospect negotiator Clive Scoggins said: “The news that this move has been agreed by the Treasury is disappointing. Prospect and our sister trade unions in PHE have been expressing deep concern over the impact of these proposals on employees for many years.

“We are aware that most of our members and their families are established in the area and a move to Harlow may be untenable. It is also difficult to see how PHE will be able to replace the extremely specialist scientific skills developed by staff working at Porton, should they be unable to relocate.”

He said assurances had been given that the earliest the functions would transfer is in 2019.

“In the interim Prospect will, alongside our sister unions, work closely with PHE to ensure that policies are put in place to assist employees to relocate without suffering detriment or if they are unable to move, that they are treated fairly and supported in finding alternative employment.”

Dorothy Fogg continued: “The GSK site in Harlow will have high containment laboratories relatively close to the perimeter.

“The introduction of dangerous pathogens in an urban environment, and the development of the supporting biological investigation services may attract local community concerns and possible wider disruptive measures.

“The Porton Down site, near Salisbury, is very remote and has a high-level of security. There must be a question mark over having such a centre right next to a main road in Harlow.

“The move from Porton Down and Colindale will break-up decades of expertise and skills that the staff have built up. Staff retention at the GSK site may also be a problem due to a greater range of alternative employers in the area, such as Silicon Fen centred on Cambridge.

“A significant risk is that a considerable time and money will be spent on training staff, who then choose to leave a public sector organisation for better-paid employment within the private sector.

‘We are  concerned that such a move could lead to the break-up of a world-class scientific and research team who may be attracted by the higher salaries in the Cambridge – M11 – London corridor.”

PHE said that the current timetable envisages Harlow being fully operational by 2024, though there would be a phased transfer of some functions before this, with the earliest moves possible in 2019.


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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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