British manufacturing this month faces perhaps the greatest test in its history. Specialist firms have joined forces with industrial powerhouses such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce in an unprecedented collaborative effort to make medical ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients.
In a conference call earlier this month, Boris Johnson urged business to make 30,000 of the devices in a matter of weeks. That is more than the few firms who make them would usually produce in a year.
Since then, dozens of companies more used to being rivals for lucrative contracts have pooled resources and shared expertise in the fight against a common enemy.
Martyn Ratcliffe, chairman of the Cambridge-based Science Group, which has one of the largest ventilator orders from the NHS after signing up to provide 10,000 via its subsidiary Sagentia, said: “What has been extremely good about this whole process is that the world-leading Cambridge consultancies have been peer-reviewing each other’s designs in order to accelerate these critical product developments.
“They’ve been adding constructive input into each other’s designs to address a genuine crisis. The co-operation with people we usually compete with every day has produced the best of British engineering.”
Yet for all of the camaraderie between rivals – not to mention the goodwill from a public relying on them to succeed – the task ahead is enormous, and the clock is ticking.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Friday that the peak of coronavirus cases is coming sooner than previously expected, perhaps as early as Easter Sunday.
And while the effort to produce more ventilators has made huge strides in little over a fortnight, it will perhaps take a miracle for there to be enough to meet the sort of demand the NHS is expecting.
The Department for Health and Social Care is reluctant to say how many patients are projected to need ventilators at once, but the fact that the government asked for 30,000 tells its own story.
One industry insider said that this was already looking like a tall order, warning that while industry has already moved mountains to get to where it has, it is going to be “nowhere near” the target by mid-April.
The sheer scale of the challenge is one reason why the government has put in place orders that would lead to the delivery of at least 61,000 machines – far more than are supposedly required.
The NHS already has 8,175 ventilators and can requisition more than 1,000 from the private sector, but question marks hang over everything else. Some 8,000 have been ordered for import but no delivery dates have been revealed.
Ventilator Challenge UK, a consortium including more than a dozen engineering firms, has an order for 15,000. It expects to deliver 30 at the start of this week, but could take until early next month to reach its 1,500-a-week peak production.
Then there are the real unknown quantities. The government has ordered 10,000 each from the engineer Dyson, working with The Technology Partnership, and the defence contractor Babcock, working with the German specialist Draegerwerk and Sagentia.
All are working on prototypes, or variations on existing designs, that have yet to secure regulatory approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
If everything goes to plan, the UK should have more than enough ventilators, but the risk is that they arrive after the need is greatest. Either way, UK manufacturing is on course to show its best side over the next few weeks.
But it may be that the sector, in decline and dwarfed by the industrial might of near neighbours such as Germany, was handed an impossible job.
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