Coronavirus: 'Switch from building cars to ventilators'
Health

Coronavirus: ‘Switch from building cars to ventilators’

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The government has urged manufactures such as car companies to start making ventilators to deal with the worsening coronavirus crisis.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC engineering firms should consider switching some manufacturing to help ramp production of the vital equipment.

He accepted it was the kind of policy normally reserved for times of war.

But BBC business editor Simon Jack said that manufacturers were far from ready to switch production.

One company told him that comparisons with the accelerated production of Spitfire aircraft during World War Two were misplaced as there was no accepted design nor guarantee components could be source quickly.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to speak some manufacturing companies on Monday.

Mr Hancock told the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday: “We’ve got high quality engineering in this country. We want anybody who has the manufacturing capability to turn to the manufacture of ventilators, to do that.”

Ventilators are vital in the treatment of patients whose lungs have been attacked by the infection.

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Media captionMatt Hancock: “Getting through this is going to be a national effort”

The health secretary also told Sky News that the country currently has 5,000 ventilators but said it would need “many times more than that”.

On Monday’s call with engineering firms, the prime minister is expected to promise that the government will buy stocks of ventilators produced as part of the production drive.

He will also set out the role government wants manufacturers to play in preparing the country for a significant outbreak of the virus.

But questions remain over how engineering firms with no experience of producing ventilators will be able start manufacturing the complex medical devices.

In a statement on Sunday, the chairman of heavy equipment manufacturer JCB, Lord Bamford, said: “We have been approached by the prime minister to see if we can help with the production of ventilators.

“We have research and engineering teams actively looking at the request at the moment,” he said.

However, he continued: “It’s unclear as yet if we can assist, but as a British company, we will do whatever we can to help during the unprecedented times our country is facing.”

What is a ventilator?

  • A ventilator is a machine that helps a person breathe by getting oxygen into the lungs and removing carbon dioxide
  • Ventilators can be used to help a person breathe if they have lung disease or another condition that makes breathing difficult. They can also be used during and post-surgery
  • A tube, connected to a ventilator machine, is placed in a person’s mouth, nose or through a small cut in the throat (called a tracheostomy)

Manufacturing firm, Unipart, confirmed that it was involved in the discussions and aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce said it was “keen to do whatever we can”.

It is not just manufacturing firms that have offered their services. Hotel chain Best Western has said it could turn its properties into temporary hospitals if the NHS needed additional bed space during the coronavirus outbreak.

The company said it had seen a surge in cancellations over the last month due to the outbreak.

“If the NHS wants additional bed space, and we can partner with other companies to provide the right medical equipment and supplies, and we can do it safely, then we would be willing to start having those conversations immediately,” the hotel chain’s boss, Rob Paterson, said.

Manufacturers asked by the government to produce thousands of ventilators to help save the lives of seriously affected victims of coronavirus are not ready to fill the demand.

Although firms including JCB, Unipart, Rolls-Royce and others are in close conversation with the government, no detailed blueprint for increased manufacture of the life-saving equipment currently exists.

One manufacturer told the BBC that comparisons with the accelerated manufacture of Spitfire aircraft during World War Two were misplaced, as there was no accepted design. Even if there was, there is no guarantee the components could be sourced in time to even start production in the next two months.

Ventilators are vital as medical experts estimate that between 10% and 20% of those who succumb to the virus will need critical care. Many of those will need help breathing.

Although firms stand ready and able to produce more ventilators, a lack of clarity on design specifications and component sourcing mean that production remains many weeks away.

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