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UK government spent £569 million on ventilators for COVID-19 but many haven’t been used

Written by on 30 September 2020

The UK government has spent GBP569 million on new ventilators for the NHS although most of the machines have yet to be needed, it has been revealed.

A report by the National Audit Office showed millions were shelled out to UK manufacturers and international suppliers under the government’s ventilation programme to prepare the NHS for the impact of COVID-19.

So far 30,000 devices have been purchased but just 2,150 have been used by the NHS.

Image:
Chinese ventilators were bought from the international market

The rest are being held in storage in preparation for a second wave.

The machines provide oxygen for people suffering lung failure in severe COVID-19 cases.

The government said they “prioritised speed over cost” in order to get machines for the NHS in time for the first wave of the virus.

The money was spent as part of the government’s response to claims the NHS was woefully unprepared for the virus at the start of the pandemic.

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Worst-case scenario predictions by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in March suggested the NHS could need 90,000 ventilation beds to cope with coronavirus.

This prediction was later scaled down to 17,500 but a survey found the service only had access to a maximum of 7,400 mechanical ventilators.

This led the government to ramp up efforts to secure breathing machines by reaching out to international suppliers in countries like China and paying UK manufacturers to make the machines as part of the Cabinet Office’s Ventilation Challenge.

Working on ventilator technology
Image:
UK manufacturers were asked to make ventilators to help increase numbers in time for the first wave

The government managed to get an extra 1,800 machines by the mid-April peak. Although this was still less than the figure SAGE predicted would be needed.

However, data shows demand was far less than expected.

At the peak the NHS had 6,818 ventilation beds in operation of which 2,849 were occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Since then the government has continued to spend money on more ventilators to prepare for a second wave.

An intial target of 18,000 was set for the end of April and 30,000 by the end of June, but these were both missed.

By of the end of August 30,000 machines had been bought by the government.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has spent at least GBP244 million purchasing 11,1000 mechanical ventilators from abroad, at an average cost of GBP22,300 per device.

A further GBP277 million was spent by the Cabinet Office on 15,200 ventilators made by UK manufacturers at an average cost of GBP18,300 per device.

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The rest of the money has been spent on other oxygen therapy devices, storage and logistics costs.

This figure could still rise according to DHSC.

The report from the NAO reads: “As at 16 September only around 2,150 mechanical ventilator units acquired through the programmes had been dispatched to the NHS.

“This is because the anticipated demand did not materialise.

“The remaining units, which were largely purchased in case of increased demand in future waves of COVID-19, are stored in warehouses, including the Ministry of Defence’s facility at Donnington, as a central reserve.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The government acted quickly to secure the thousands of ventilators it thought it may need to safeguard public health.

“In the event far fewer ventilators were required than was anticipated during the first phase of the pandemic, resulting in a stockpile that may be needed for future peaks in clinical need.

“As with all aspects of its pandemic response, the government should ensure that the learning from this experience is used to enhance its contingency planning for future public health emergencies.”

There have been over 42,000 UK coronavirus deaths and over one million internationally.