A bag valve mask along with 300 ventilators sourced from China at MoD Donnington. Photograph: Sgt Ben Beale Mod Handout/EPA
There are around 10,000 ventilators available to the NHS at present but the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said the UK needs 18,000 to be sure of dealing with the rising numbers of cases – prompting intense efforts to get more.
Ministers had called on the private sector to build new ventilators as part of Ventilator Challenge UK, but it has taken time to build up the manufacturing of devices that also need regulatory approval before they can be used.
As a result, immediate efforts to meet peak demand have focused on obtaining ventilators from established manufactures around the world, rather than new entrants signed up by ministers in the past three weeks.
The Department of Health has secured another 1,500 “on order and due to arrive in the next fortnight” and officials “have been working rapidly to secure additional ventilator capacity through established UK suppliers and from overseas”.
Earlier on Wednesday Downing Street confirmed that the UK had asked the US to deliver 200 ventilators already ordered from US companies, clarifying statements made the previous night by the US president, Donald Trump.
The president said the UK had called the US with an urgent plea for the devices, although this was wrongly understood in some quarters to mean that Britain was seeking an emergency donation.
“We’re going to work it out, we’ve got to work it out. They’ve been great partners. They wanted 200, they need them desperately,” Trump said.
Downing Street said that the NHS had ordered ventilators from suppliers in several countries in the race to be prepared. “We have been sourcing ventilators from around the world and that includes the US,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
Sources at the Department of Health added that the extra steps taken would mean that the government remained confident the NHS would have enough ventilators available to meet patient demand in the critical coming days.
That would meet a commitment given on Saturday by Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England. He said: “We have planned to stay ahead of capacity. I won’t give you a number in terms of our aim for ventilators … Our overall strategy is to keep capacity ahead of demand and we have successfully done that so far.”
Ventilators are critical in keeping the most severely ill coronavirus patients alive, although the UK had only 5,000 of the medical devices available in the middle of March as the severity of the crisis became clear.
That number increased to 8,175 last week and is now at around 10,000, boosted partly by taking over 1,000 from the private sector, which has now been effectively taken over by the NHS for the duration of the crisis. Around 480 have been obtained from abroad since March, it is understood.
Civilian personnel have started delivering the ventilators, which are being briefly warehoused at a vast storage depot at the Ministry of Defence’s Donnington base in Shropshire, including 300 from Chinese firms.
Military logistics experts have also embarked on delivery runs to hospitals that have asked for extra supplies. But UK specialist suppliers are traditionally used to making 50 to 60 a week, forcing the government to turn to imports, while other British firms step up their manufacturing and obtain regulatory approval.
Ventilator Challenge UK, a consortium of engineering firms that has made the swiftest progress in manufacturing new machines, has already delivered several dozen of its new devices to Donnington.
Other devices have been designed from scratch within weeks by firms including the manufacturer Dyson and defence firm Babcock. But several sources involved in the effort have previously told the Guardian that, despite their best efforts, it will take weeks to reach maximum production.
The machines that have arrived at hospitals this week are understood to include paraPac models made by Ventilator Challenge UK member Smiths Medical, which has pledged to provide up to 10,000 of them.
While the paraPac is already approved for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), it is primarily intended to assist breathing during patient transport, such as in ambulances.
Clearance is still required for 5,000 more heavy duty machines more suited to use in intensive care, made by Oxford-based Penlon, which is also part of the consortium.
According to well placed sources, the MHRA is now performing the final clinical tests on Penlon’s design at hospitals around the country. The device, which involved tweaking an existing model, is expected to secure regulatory clearance soon.
Airbus is helping Penlon ramp up its output by replicating the company’s production line at the Advanced Manufacturing Resource Centre in north Wales, where the aircraft manufacturer is the largest tenant.
While manufacturers are battling to produce ventilators in time for the projected peak of cases, the government has ordered far more than the 30,000 that were initially called for by Boris Johnson.
On top of the 10,000 ventilators the NHS already has, Babcock, Dyson and Cambridge-based Sagentia have each been asked to provide 10,000 newly designed models, although they all require regulatory approval and will need weeks to reach full production. Once all of those are manufactured and approved for use the NHS is likely to have many more ventilators than the 18,000 needed.