UK government spent half a billion on COVID-19 ventilators for NHS

Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shipped out to the NHS, in Abingdon, England. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA via AP
Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shipped out to the NHS, in Abingdon, England. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA via AP

The UK government spent over half a billion pounds buying extra ventilators for the NHS as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a report has found.

The National Audit Office (NAO) on Wednesday said the Department of Health & Social Care and the Cabinet Office had jointly spent £569m ($727m) buying over 25,000 ventilators since March.

In a largely positive report, the NAO found the government prioritised speed over cost when acquiring ventilators as the pandemic first hit the UK. Despite this, Whitehall still managed to put in place “reasonable” safeguards to ensure money was not wasted and the government has managed to recoup some losses by reselling parts.

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

“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.”

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NAO said that most of the more than 25,000 ventilators acquired by the government had not been used, as NHS capacity was not overwhelmed in the early days of the pandemic.

NAO said it was prudent to build up extra capacity even if it was not used, given the risk of subsequent waves of COVID-19. The UK now has over 30,000 ventilators available to the NHS, compared with just under 10,000 in March.

The government acquired the additional capacity through two parallel processes. The Department for Health and Social Care ordered extra ventilators from existing NHS suppliers and overseas factories. 11,100 were acquired through this method at an average cost of £22,300 per ventilator.

Separately, the Cabinet Office ran a process — dubbed the Ventilator Challenge — where existing UK manufacturers in other industries were asked to develop and manufacture new ventilators. Household names such as Dyson, McLaren and Rolls-Royce (RR.L) were involved in this process.

NAO said the Ventilator Challenge was higher risk and the government spend £113m on projects that ultimately didn’t materialise. However, the Cabinet Office ended up acquiring 15,200 regulator-approved machines through the Ventilator Challenge at an average cost of around £18,300 per unit.

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Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the government had “set a benchmark for procurement during the pandemic.”

“DHSC and the Cabinet Office have shown it’s possible to work at pace and get results without writing a blank cheque,” Hillier said in a statement.

She said the NHS is “now much better prepared for whatever happens next.”

NAO’s Davies said: “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.”

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