'Rising to the challenge'

Covid-19 latest: Unite manufacturing members to help national effort in mass ventilator production drive

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Unite members in manufacturing are joining in the national effort to tackle the coronavirus epidemic as a consortium of the UK’s biggest firms in the sector prepare to rapidly build tens of thousands of medical ventilators.


The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium, comprised of manufacturing giants including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, Ford, BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace and others, announced on Monday (March 30) that it plans to imminently help ramp up production of ventilators amid a nationwide shortage.


At present, the NHS has only 8,000 ventilators but will need many times more this number to effectively treat patients who will require hospitalisation for the Covid-19 virus.


Life-saving ventilators work to support hospitalised patients’ breathing which then gives them time to recover from the virus.


The Consortium is now at work on two separate projects for an initial order of 10,000 ventilators. One, dubbed Project Oyster, involves tweaking a ventilator model by health device firm Penlon based in Oxfordshire. The other, Project Penguin, will see the Consortium scale up production of an existing ventilator model, called the ParaPAC, by the Smiths Medical firm.


The Consortium has officially received orders from the government for 10,000 ventilators but production has yet to begin as it awaits regulatory approval.


But the Consortium said it was confident of a “straightforward and very prompt regulatory sign-off” since their projects are based on already existing models. The group said it hopes to begin actual production as soon as this week.


The news come after confusion last week when household appliances firm Dyson said it had developed an entirely new ventilator model from scratch in just 10 days and received a government order for 10,000 of the ventilators.


While the government confirmed it had placed an order with Dyson, a spokesperson for prime minister Boris Johnson said the order was contingent on the model passing regulatory and safety tests.


[Dyson’s] machines must meet the necessary safety and regulatory standards,” the spokesperson said. “If they do not they will not be bought or rolled out to hospitals.”


A ventilator expert from Penlon told the Guardian it was doubtful that Dyson’s plans to produce an entirely new device were realistic.


News of the UK manufacturing Consortium ready to mass produce ventilators comes also as the government was criticised last week for missing an opportunity to procure ventilators through the EU.


Cabinet officer Michael Gove admitted on Sunday (March 29) “communication confusion” after the government missed the deadline for an EU scheme to procure extra ventilators.


The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium now has a website up and running and is confident it can start production in a matter of days.


Business and industry minister Nadhim Zahawi welcomed the consortium which he said “has brought together the very best of British engineering and manufacturing.


“It will be key in our efforts to ramp up ventilator capacity and overcome coronavirus,” he said.


“Over the coming weeks I will be working closely with the consortium as part of our shared ambition to protect our NHS and save lives.


“Over 3,000 companies answered the Prime Minister’s call for ventilator production and their help will be vital as we make our way through this turbulent period.”


Dick Elsy, head of the Consortium, said in a statement that the group “brings together some of the most innovative companies in the world”.


“Every day, their highly-skilled staff collaborate to create solutions that help millions of people, and this project is no different,” he noted. “They are working together with incredible determination and energy to scale up production of much-needed ventilators and combat a virus that is affecting people in many countries. I am confident this consortium has the skills and tools to make a difference and save lives.”


The consortium is working closely with Unite, which welcomed collaboration with workers in manufacturing, thousands of whom are Unite members, to help save lives.


Unite assistant general secretary for manufacturing Steve Turner said, “In this time of national crisis, it is important we recognise and appreciate the dedication of the workers who are coming together across British industry to help our NHS and to save the lives of the most vulnerable in society.


“Today’s announcement is a sign that those working in Britain’s high-tech manufacturing sector are rising to the challenge without question, putting their world-leading skills to use in a wartime type-effort to build life-saving equipment for our NHS,” he added.


“It graphically demonstrates the value of cooperation and coordination and is a stark reminder of why it is so important for the UK to maintain and expand its national manufacturing capabilities and capacity, including the skills and knowledge of its world class workforce.”


Turner noted that he was “enormously proud to support the work which has been announced today and of Unite members who are going the extra mile to do what is required of them in unprecedented times”.


Commenting on the approach the Consortium has taken with cross-company and union collaboration, compared to the Dyson approach, Turner said “no time will be wasted ‘reinventing the wheel’ when building medical equipment desperately needed now in our NHS”.


“The common purpose, cooperation and collaboration shown by the Ventilator Challenge Consortium is going to be far more effective in the battle against the global coronavirus pandemic than any of the vainglorious posturing of others.”

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