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UK Government Considers Designating Genomics as Critical National Infrastructure

The UK government is considering whether to designate the genomics sector as critical national infrastructure, the deputy prime minister said on Monday.

Oliver Dowden told Parliament he is “exploring the matter” when MPs pressed him on China issues following accusations that a well-connected parliamentary researcher may have been spying for the Chinese regime.

Mr. Dowden also said there’s a “strong case to be made” to include China in the enhanced tier of the foreign agents registration scheme (FIRS).

Concerns over BGI

The government has been urged to treat genomics as critical national infrastructure for months amid growing concerns that genomics information collected by China’s BGI may be used for military purposes.

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The Chinese genomics giant reportedly developed NIFTY prenatal tests with the Chinese military and used a military supercomputer to re-analyse the data collected. It was also accused of analysing genetic traits of ethnic minorities including the Uyghur people and the Tibetans.

The test has been carried out 9 to 10 million times in more than 80 countries including the UK.

Three BGI subsidies have been sanctioned by the United States over human rights and securities concerns.

BGI previously denied it had provided NIFTY data to Chinese authorities for national security or national defense security purposes. It has also denied involvement in human rights abuses or being state-owned or state-controlled.

Asked whether the government will designate genomics as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, Mr. Dowden told Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael he’s considering the issue.

“It is not currently designated as such, but in my role in the Cabinet Office, I keep the register of critical national infrastructure under review, and I am exploring the matter,” he said.

Critical national infrastructure refers to critical elements of facilities, systems, sites, information, people, networks, and processes that are necessary for a country to function or need protection because of their potential danger to the public.

The loss or compromise of critical national infrastructure could result in significant loss of life or economic, social, or national security impact.

The are currently 13 sectors on the UK’s list of national infrastructure including chemicals, civil nuclear, communications, defence, emergency services, energy, finance, food, government, health, space, transport, and water.

Foreign Agents Registration

Questioned by Conservative MP Tim Loughton on whether China will be included in the “enhanced tier” of FIRS, which is currently under development, the deputy prime minister indicated ministers are “reviewing the countries in the enhanced tier,” adding, “I think there is a strong case to be made.”

As part of the National Security Act 2023, which received royal assent on July 11, the Home Office gained the power to set up a two-tier FIRS.

Under the scheme, foreign agents—apart from diplomats and their families—will be required to report activities that are intended to influence UK politics.

Agents of a foreign power that’s included in the enhanced tier will be required to register almost all activities with limited exceptions such as cooking or building services for a diplomatic mission.

The Home Office is currently fleshing out the rules, which are expected to come into force next year.

The power to set up the FIRS was written into law after MI5 resorted to issuing an alert to Parliament last year about Christine Ching Kui Lee, who the spy agency said had been “knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

The alert states that Lee had been facilitating financial donations to UK political parties and politicians and that anyone contacted by her should be “mindful of her affiliation with the Chinese state and remit to advance the CCP’s agenda in UK politics.”

The individual, who has not been officially named, has issued a statement through his lawyers saying he’s “completely innocent.”

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