Johnson Accused of Prioritizing Brexit Over Saving Lives With Ventilator Plan

(Bloomberg) --

Britain’s attempt to plug a shortage of life-saving ventilators needed to treat the most seriously ill coronavirus patients is being hobbled by mishaps and confusion.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to sign up to a European Union-wide effort to buy ventilators has left the government open to accusations of putting Brexit over people’s lives -- while U.K. manufacturers have warned they might need months to respond to the government’s call to ramp up production.

At stake is Britain’s ability to respond to a nationwide outbreak that has already claimed 759 lives. The National Health Service has less than a third of the devices it needs and Johnson’s call to get 30,000 in service within weeks is not just a test of his leadership, but also his reluctance to engage with the EU.

“The hard reality is there’s an awfully big hill to climb,” said James Greenham, managing director of medical device manufacturer EMS Physio. “When you hear ministers say we’re going to have thousands of these in a few weeks, you simply cannot believe them.”

Johnson’s spokesman initially said the government didn’t take part in the Europe-wide procurement program because the U.K. isn’t a member of the EU. After the bloc pointed out Britain was still welcome to join, the prime minister’s office said it didn’t receive the invitation due to a “communication problem.”

Four Rounds

The bloc insisted British representatives were in meetings about sourcing ventilators and it was clear the U.K., which left the bloc in January, was eligible to join the EU initiative. London’s decision not to take part means it has already missed out on four procurement rounds.

“The possibility of launching a procurement procedure has been discussed several times in meetings of the health security committee in which the U.K. participated,” Commission spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker told reporters. “At these meetings the commission stressed its readiness to further support countries with the procurement of medical counter-measures if needed. So member states and the U.K. had the opportunity to signal they wanted to participate.”

On the domestic front, companies such as Airbus SE, Dyson Ltd. and Formula 1 teams have all offered to produce ventilators. But industry executives were skeptical about how quickly the devices will be available.

Even using an existing ventilator design, it could take three months to source the materials needed and train manufacturing staff to oversee the process, Greenham said.

Dyson announced this week it had developed a new ventilator and received an order from Britain for 10,000 units -- but the government later said its purchase would depend on regulators approving the device.

“So Much Ambiguity”

A separate group including Airbus, McLaren Automotive Ltd, Siemens AG and Meggitt Plc is trying to ramp up production of existing ventilator designs made by Smiths Group Plc and Penlon Ltd -- but it is also waiting for the green light from government.

“Things are happening, but there’s so much ambiguity and vagueness at the moment,” said Tony Hague, chief executive officer of Midlands-based manufacturer PP Control & Automation, which has offered to help the ventilator-building effort. “There are a lot of people not very clear about a lot of things.”

Any new ventilator design would have to jump through lengthy -- and necessary -- regulatory hoops in order to be approved for use in intensive care wards, according to Greenham. That process, which includes developing a prototype, testing it “to destruction,” and ensuring traceability of all components, typically takes two to three years, he said.

Johnson held talks with some of the manufacturers late on Thursday, according to his office, and assured them the government would move as quickly as possible to approve new designs as long as they meet the requirements.

Test First

“I’m sure Dyson and Airbus have got thousands of engineers who can help, but you’ve still got to test it and verify it before you go into production,” he said.

Greenham’s verdict chimes with what Penlon Ltd. said soon after Johnson issued his call to manufacturers. The company makes anesthesia machines that perform some of the functions of intensive care ventilators and is now involved in one of the groups working to scale up production. To develop a new product from scratch and secure regulatory approval would take three years, it said.

For all the criticism, some progress is being made, with the government acquiring 50 ventilators from overseas in the past week, according to one official familiar with the matter.

“The government is pulling out every stop to explore every avenue to get more ventilators,” said Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the MakeUK manufacturing lobby group. “No stone is unturned on this one. Whether it results in ventilators being produced quickly enough is another matter -- but they are trying everything.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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