British manufacturers under pressure to make enough ventilators to combat COVID-19

Stephen Beard Mar 31, 2020
Ventilators are critical for many COVID-19 patients. A doctor demonstrates at a hospital in Germany on March 25. Axel Heimken/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

British manufacturers under pressure to make enough ventilators to combat COVID-19

Stephen Beard Mar 31, 2020
Ventilators are critical for many COVID-19 patients. A doctor demonstrates at a hospital in Germany on March 25. Axel Heimken/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Access to a ventilator could be a matter of life or death for critically ill COVID-19 patients and Britain’s state-run National Health Service is dangerously low on the devices. At the time of writing, the NHS had just over 8,000 ventilators —  it needs at least 30,000 to treat the anticipated number of severe cases of the disease.

Britain’s relatively small-scale ventilator manufacturers cannot at present meet that demand and foreign suppliers are now focused totally on their own markets. To make up the shortfall, the British government has appealed to the non-medical engineering industry to retool and start manufacturing this vital equipment in large quantities. 

“We want anybody who has the manufacturing capability to turn to the manufacture of ventilators,” said Matt Hancock, the nation’s health secretary, at a recent news conference.   

More than 3,000 companies, making a wide variety of products, responded to that appeal.  

Among the would-be ventilator makers: Dyson, best known for its vacuum cleaners and hairdryers; Rolls Royce; and JCB, which makes mechanical diggers. Prodrive, one of the world’s top racing and rally car makers, has also offered to help.

Ben Sayer of Prodrive, a racing and rally car manufacturer.
(Stephen Beard/Marketplace)

“What we’re very good at here is being able to manufacture and assemble complex systems very quickly,” said Prodrive’s communications director Ben Sayer.

“We’ve never made medical equipment before, but we’ve made lots of equipment that is quite similar. We work on complex hydraulic systems  where the valves, the solenoids, the actuators, the electrical systems that go into that are quite similar to the components in a ventilator. We’ve just never built anything for a medical environment before,” he said.

Professor Nick Oliver. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense” (Courtesy photo)

But that lack of medical orientation is a  problem, according to one critic of the government’s scheme. Professor of management at the University of Edinburgh Business School Nick Oliver said these high-tech volunteers are lacking one skill that’s vital in ventilator making.

“It’s understanding the medical environment as distinct from the environment of the race track or the open road. These are very, very different environments,” Oliver said.  

“I think the idea that manufacturers, even very skilled manufacturers, who are not well versed in the art of producing medical devices can suddenly turn on production of such devices is a little optimistic, to say the least.” He said.

Andrew Rayner of MEC Medical, which makes ventilator components, is also skeptical about the government turning to non-medical companies for these devices.

“I can’t see it being feasible,” he said. “They should be putting their efforts into existing manufacturers of ventilators, and trying to upscale their production.”  

Dyson says it has designed an entirely new ventilator and has received an order from the NHS for 10,000 machines. The government claims that mass production of ventilators is only days away. Still, Rayner has his doubts.  

“They’re not days away. They’re going to be weeks away. And the volume that our government requires, and the manufacturing that’s going to have to go into these … there’s no quick solution,” he said.  

But a quick solution is required. The pandemic is expected to reach a peak in Britain within the next two weeks.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

Read More


As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.