U.S. markets closed

£50m spent designing ventilators 'should have been used for PPE'

Lizzie Roberts
Industrial giants like Airbus, Siemens AG and Ford Motor Co. turned over production floors to the ventilator effort   - Bloomberg
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Millions of pounds awarded to companies to design new ventilators would have been better spent on PPE for frontline staff, an independent Government advisor has said. 

Instead of focusing on ramping up the production of existing and approved prototypes, manufacturers were given more than £50m to create new ones, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, launched a call to arms on March 14 for manufacturers to join efforts to build ventilators to treat Covid patients.

At that time the NHS had just 5,000 ventilators and coronavirus deaths had doubled in 24 hours from 10 to 21.

At least 12 designs created under the scheme were seen to be too “risky” to use on patients, Professor Derek Hill, of University College London, a member of the Independent Regulatory Advisory Group to the Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS), said.

“These basic designs, they might be fine for ventilating for a few hours,” Prof Hill said, but it was viewed as “quite risky to put patients on these for long periods of time”.

“It would have been very hard to get them off and their lungs could have been damaged, we’re lucky we didn’t use them,” he added.

How a ventilator works

The Government placed contracts worth almost £200m to develop new ventilators or modify existing designs, according to contracts seen by this newspaper.

A £136m order for 15,000 ventilators was placed with the VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK), a consortium of leading industrial companies.

The group realised the fastest way to produce the machines was to modify an existing design and it was linked up with Penlon, an Oxfordshire-based medical devices company, by the Cabinet Office within days of the Government’s original appeal.

As of today, VCUK will have built 4,500 Prima ES02 ventilators, an updated and quick-to-build version of a Penlon device, the group said.

Other contracts reveal amounts paid to companies who have since been stood down. These include more than £22m to medical devices business Cogent Technology, working with Team Consulting, who were told their efforts were not needed in late April.

Another medical devices company was awarded a £14.5m contract, but at least two of its three conceptual designs were abandoned.

In March medical researchers and engineers at UCL teamed up with Formula One outfit Mercedes to adapt a breathing aid for mass production that could keep coronavirus patients off much-needed ventilators. - AFP

The Technology Partnership, which joined forces with Dyson on the Covent ventilator, was awarded a £6.3m contract. But Sir James Dyson said he pumped £20m into the project and did not accept any public funds.

PA Consulting, which oversaw the ventilator programme, received £1.5m for its services.

During the project, Prof Hill said “political events” had caused embarrassment for the Government over the slow development of the machines.

The team were told “you really must focus on this, this is really urgent” after it was revealed during the daily press conference, hosted by Micheal Gove on March 31, that only 30 ventilators had been delivered.

“The impression was there was some politician who had been embarrassed… (and) suddenly there was a pressure to focus on the most basic designs which could be made quickest, but actually (they were) probably not the right ones clinically,” Prof Hill said.

He added: “It would ultimately have been much more sensible to focus on protecting staff and vulnerable patients.

“All the effort and money that was put into ventilators, imagine that had been spent on PPE? I think, in retrospect, that’s where (the money) would have been much better spent.” 

The “real scarcity of resources” was not so much equipment but people, he added, and “protecting the people should be number one”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said due to modelling at the start of the pandemic suggesting the UK would run out of ventilators they “pledged to do everything we could” to increase supply.

This included procuring devices from abroad, scaling up production of existing devices and designing and building new machines.

The spokesman added: "Thanks to the extraordinary national effort, the NHS has not been overwhelmed, almost 5,000 new-build machines are ready to save lives on the NHS frontline and everyone who needed a ventilator throughout this crisis has had access to one.”