We made right choice in ventilator race, says UK consortium head

The head of a group that has made the swiftest progress in supplying ventilators to the NHS has said building devices from scratch would have been slower.

As the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium began accelerating production in an effort to reach 1,500 a week and 20,000 in total, the group’s chair, Dick Elsy, said harnessing the manufacturing muscle of big companies to increase the output of specialist firms had proved to be the right approach.

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“It was our choice that the quickest route was to embrace those existing units,” said Elsy. “Others pursued the start-from-scratch approach and some of those projects have been turned off.”

The consortium, which includes corporate names including Airbus, Rolls-Royce and McLaren, has supplied 250 ventilators to hospitals, with “hundreds” to follow this week and maximum output slated for early May.

Meanwhile, new devices made by engineer Dyson and defence firm Babcock are awaiting regulatory approval, while other projects have been cancelled after the government upgraded its requirements for the machines, rendering some unsuitable.

However, Elsy dismissed suggestions that the government was wrong to commission companies with no medical expertise to design and build prototypes. “It [new ventilators being unsuitable] was the result of changing clinical requirements, not any muddled thinking,” he said.

One of the two devices being built by the consortium, a variation on Oxford specialist Penlon’s Prima anaesthesia device, also had to be adjusted to meet the government’s tighter specifications. However, Elsy said that tweak had taken 24 hours to achieve.

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The consortium’s strategy has been to ramp up output of two devices made by Penlon and another existing producer, Smiths Medical, codenamed Project Oyster and Project Penguin, respectively.

The government has ordered up to 5,000 of Smiths’ ParaPac devices, which are suitable for short-term ventilation, and 15,000 of the more heavy-duty Prima.

The Penlon machine became the first device to receive regulatory approval last week. Efforts will now accelerate with the opening of several sites that replicate facilities at Penlon’s Abingdon factory, where staff are working 24 hours a day in three rotating shifts.

An Airbus facility at Broughton, north Wales, as well as Ford’s Dagenham factory, are assisting with initial assembly, while automotive firm McLaren is making trolleys to carry the devices at its Woking site.

Surface Technology International in Hook, Hampshire, is managing final assembly before the machines return to Penlon for testing. They are then delivered to a Ministry of Defence base at Donnington, Shropshire, for distribution to hospitals by military logistics teams.

Smiths is also manufacturing in multiple shifts at its Luton plant, while engineering firm GKN is bringing its nearby factory on stream this week. Another GKN plant in Cowes on the Isle of Wight will start operations next week, as will a Rolls-Royce site in Filton, near Bristol.

The effort involves 20 companies and 3,000 staff working to produce what the consortium says will be 10 years’ worth of ventilator production in 10 weeks.

Elsy said the consortium believed it was currently keeping pace with the needs of the NHS. “I understand that at the moment there are ventilators available but we’ve seen overnight another spike in the death rate so it’s pretty unpredictable at the moment,” he said. “We’re keeping our heads down, building to a schedule set by the Cabinet Office and if we build more than required, that’s a good thing.”

He added that the government had provided the companies with funding to buy the 11m components that will be used to make the machines.

Elsy is also chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which brings together academics and businesses to boost innovation. He called for the emergency ventilator effort to create more emphasis among politicians and businesses on the need for the UK to have a thriving manufacturing sector.

“Anything like this makes you reflect on the importance of having sovereign capability of making stuff,” he said. “It will make us think quite differently about it and that should in time lead to more UK manufacturing.

“There’s also a great opportunity to bring on shore responsible manufacturing capability that’s zero carbon. We can’t have stuff made overseas if we’re going to be carbon neutral.

“We can produce things cheaply in this country. You don’t need cheap labour these days, it’s about technology. We’re looking at what we can do next.”

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