Some further reflections on the UK's purchase of ventilators

As mentioned on Friday’s post, the UK did not take part on the joint procurement set up by the European Commission for COVID-19 medical supplies, including that of ventilators. The Government's official response is that there was a miscommunication between the parties and that no invitation to participate was received. Turns out that it may not be the case.

The Guardian obtained access to the minutes of four meetings where the procurement of medical emergency supplies was discussed (31/01; 04/02; 02/03; 13/03), all with a representative of the UK Government present. At least in the 13/03 meeting  the joint procurement of ventilators was discussed as well and 25 Member States are now part of a joint procurement of said ventilators (launched on 17/03).

This Guardian scoop provides with some extra information about what information the Government had or not by March 16th and March 26th, the key dates leading on engaging and contracting out the purchase of new ventilators.

Furthermore, the Lancet editor has railed against the lack of PPE for health care workers indicating as well that the risks posed by COVID-19 were known in the UK again in late January and early February as well:

“It is a national scandal, we shouldn’t be in this position”@RichardHorton1 says the UK has “wasted February” when we should have been preparing the NHS for coronavirus #bbcqt

— BBC Question Time (@bbcquestiontime) March 26, 2020

(podcast here too).

In today's daily briefing, Michael Gove had this to say about the purchases of ventilators:

Implications for the Dyson contract (and the Ventilator Challenge UK one)

It is obvious from the Guardian's account that the UK Government was aware of the implications of the disease at least in late January and early February and that the medical community in the UK was aware of the implications too. And it is clear too that for the whole of February and up to mid-March nothing was done to secure the purchase of ventilators. In effect, the Guardian's report bolsters my argument that the Government contributed to the extreme urgency faced by not acting in due time.

Furthermore, while on March 16th the UK Government was asking for help from manufacturers for ventilators, the Commission was launching a procedure on the 17th a specifically for the supply of ventilators. Again, what this shows is that there was another way forward that could have been taken and that did not imply a direct award to a company without prior experience in producing medical ventilators meaning it had to design one from scratch. So, while the Commission is helping the Member States buying actual ventilators all we have from the contract awarded to Dyson on March 26th is a simple render.

For the Ventilator Challenge UK contract the implications are less clear since they are based on existing designs and with the purpose of securing supply in times where normal supply chains are not available in the next few months, so as a secondary source of ventilators and spare parts/consumables *on the long run* it is a reasonable backup plan to have. As per Gove's comments on today's daily Government briefing, the first 'thousands' ventilator machines will be 'delivered' over the weekend and it is safe to assume these will be coming from Ventilator Challenge UK models and not Dyson. It remains to be seen how many will actually be delivered to the NHS and how quickly can the production ramp to achieve the 'thousands' the NHS needs.

In the meanwhile, what I would like to see however, would be the actual contracts signed with both Dyson and Ventilator Challenge UK. Since at least Dyson is claiming the ventilators will be sold at cost without a profit margin and not in a core business of the company, the usual caveats of 'commercial sensitivity' do not really apply here.