Major British manufacturers have been sent blueprints showing them how to make up to 20,000 ventilators to treat coronavirus patients in the event of an surge in cases.
Officials at the Department for Health and Social Care have sent a document detailing how to build the medical devices to some of the UK’s largest engineering firms and car manufacturers, according to several sources.
Boris Johnson is due to discuss the plan on Monday evening during a conference call with firms including Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover, which the government believes can help address a potential shortage of equipment.
The NHS has 5,900 ventilators, according to DHSC, but might need more than three times as many in the worst-case scenario for the spread of Covid-19.
The government’s plan to plug the gap involves designing what the DHSC called a “basic, functional ventilator” that could be made cheaply using available components. Several firms have already received a two-page specification document guiding them through the assembly process.
Experts expressed scepticism about the ability of non-specialist firms to make ventilators in short order. But a number of manufacturers have said they will assist with the plan in any way they can, and some are expected to be asked to switch their production lines to producing the devices.
Calling all manufacturers who can support our National Effort for #coronavirus ventilator production – to help, contact Government Business Support team: 0300 456 3565 / email@example.com
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) March 16, 2020
The department said it had engaged specialist firms to help with the design, but that major manufacturers could also help out.
“Engineers have already been tasked with developing plans to produce more ventilators in the UK, at speed, and today the PM spoke to leading British manufacturers to ask them to join the national effort to halt the spread of coronavirus,” a spokesperson said.
Engineers and technology teams at aircraft manufacturer Airbus have already begun examining ways that they could build ventilators and help distribute them around the country. “These are unprecedented times and Airbus will help where it can,” a spokesperson said.
Rolls-Royce said it was “keen to do whatever we can to help the government and the country at this time and will look to provide any practical help we can”.
Carmakers, some of which said on Monday they were shutting down vehicle production due to the outbreak, are also expected to be asked by the prime minister to help by making production capacity available.
Vauxhall owner Groupe PSA said on Monday it was shutting its European car plants, including two in the UK, due to coronavirus fears, in a retrenchment that echoes similar plans by rivals such as Fiat-Chrysler and Renault. PSA said operations across Europe, including the Ellesmere and Luton plants, which employ 2,560 staff between them, would be suspended until 27 March. Employees would be paid during that period.
The French carmaker blamed disruption to supply chains and tumbling demand for cars amid the global outbreak, as well as an “acceleration observed in recent days of serious Covid-19 cases close to certain production sites”.
But the company also said it was keen to help improve the UK’s readiness for an increase in the number of people falling ill and requiring treatment.
“We have been in contact with the UK government and are keen to assist at Vauxhall Motors’ Ellesmere Port plant,” said Stephen Norman, the managing director. “Once we have more details on the requirements, we will be able to analyse what we can do.”
The company did not clarify whether the closure of its European sites could affect its ability to assist in ventilator production.
Honda and Ford have also been asked to help, while Jaguar Land Rover said: “As a British company, naturally, we will do whatever we can to support our communities during these unprecedented times.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has set up a dedicated hotline that manufacturers can call if they believe they might be able to supply medical equipment.
During this evening’s conference call with manufacturers, Johnson will address the participants, before handing over to Michael Gove to flesh out the details of the government’s requirements.
They are expected to receive advice on how to navigate the complex migration from their current production models to making unfamiliar medical devices.
A full-scale switchover of production lines is unlikely to happen quickly but experts said manufacturers could help in the shorter term by supplying firms that already make medical equipment with staff or factory floor space to increase output.
Automotive firms could be particularly suited to refocusing on medical equipment, as many already have spare production capacity in readiness for future expansion.
If other carmakers follow PSA by shutting down production, that could free up further space for making unfamiliar products.
David Bailey, a professor of business economics at Birmingham University, said it could take some time for carmakers to be in a position to assemble medical equipment.
“What’s most likely is that if there’s a manufacturer already making ventilators that wants to work 24/7, other manufacturers could help in terms of staff, components and supply chains, supporting them in that way.
“Technicians could be redeployed to operate machinery on different production lines where there are similar manufacturing processes in place.”
“Longer-term it might be about production lines but it would take a while to tool up. The issues will be supply chains. Where are these components coming from and if there is disruption, can they be purchase locally instead?”
Craig Thompson, head of products at Oxfordshire company Penlon, told the BBC that expecting non-specialist firms to start producing ventilators in large numbers was far-fetched.
“The idea that an engineering company can quickly manufacturer medical devices, and comply with the rules, is unrealistic,” Thompson said.
Penlon makes 750 machines a year and has said it could eventually double production.