The government is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to source 30,000 ventilators for the NHS to treat Covid-19 patients, ordering newly designed models, scaling up production of existing ones and importing machines from overseas.
The defence firm Babcock joined the engineering company Dyson on Thursday in revealing plans for an entirely new medical ventilator working to specifications set by the government.
A consortium called Ventilator Challenge UK, involving companies including Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Ford, is separately providing the manufacturing muscle to scale up production of proven models already made by the specialist UK firms Smiths and Penlon.
A small firm called Inspiration Healthcare has received a £4m order from the NHS for which it will import hundreds of the devices – used to keep patients with respiratory problems breathing – from the US and Israel.
Late on Thursday, the government said it would also join an EU scheme to procure ventilators, having initially said it would not take part because it had missed an invitation to do so owing to a “communication problem”.
A Westminster source said it made sense for the government to pursue multiple strategies in parallel to mitigate the risk of any one option failing.
The firms involved are waiting for the government to go public with its plans but the delay in announcing them is not thought to be holding up the production effort.
Dyson has revealed the most detail about its progress, including pictures of its CoVent prototype. It hopes to begin producing within weeks, pending approval from the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which has been talking to Dyson during the design phase.
However, the government has placed firm orders for 10,000 of the Dyson machines, which will be made at the company’s lab in Hullavington, Wiltshire, a former wartime RAF base, and supplied at cost price.
The company’s founder, Sir James Dyson, has said he will pay for the provision of a further 5,000 machines out of his own pocket, with 1,000 reserved for the NHS and the remainder available to underpin international healthcare efforts.
Babcock is working on a new model in partnership with a leading medical equipment manufacturer that has asked not to be identified but that has experience making hospital ventilators.
The supply chain will come from factories in Scotland and south-west England.
Dyson and Babcock both expect it to take a couple of weeks before they reach production, meaning the government faces a race against time to produce enough machines to deal with an anticipated surge in patients.
But Ventilator Challenge UK, bristling with the UK’s best-known industrial names, is thought to be ready to move faster because it is working from existing models.
The group is headed by Dick Elsy, of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult research group, coordinating efforts from Airbus, Meggitt, GKN, McLaren, BAE Systems, Ford, Inspiration Healthcare, Renishaw, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, Thales and Ultra Electronics.
These firms will help massively scale up production lines for Smiths, which already produces a lightweight portable “paraPac” ventilator, and Penlon, which makes a more heavy-duty machine suited for hospital use.
Ventilator experts said smaller models typically cost about £5,000 to make, while the larger devices could sell for £25,000.
All of the companies involved are expected to waive any profits, given the national crisis, and the supply chain will come entirely from the UK, in case of any disruption to cross-border trade.
In the meantime, the government has also ordered ventilators from overseas to ensure that it can bridge the gap until the other working groups can get up and running.
Inspiration Healthcare, based in Crawley, West Sussex, said it had taken a £4m order from the NHS and was importing ventilators from suppliers in the US and Israel.
It typically ships medical equipment to the UK but its chief executive, Neil Campbell, said the devices would come in by air because “time is of the essence”.
Breas UK, a Stratford-upon-Avon company that specialises in ventilators, is also working with the NHS to supply ventilators in the more immediate term.
The company has tripled its capacity since December, adding employees and production lines, and moving to seven-day working at factories in the UK, Sweden and the US. It is also offering remote training on how to use the ventilators for medical staff unfamiliar with them.