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Ministers must invoke spirit of war by supervising rush for ventilators

Ventilators

It sounds great, doesn’t it? Britain’s top manufacturers leaping into action as the country battles an acute shortage of life-saving ventilators. Illustrious names such as James Dyson and Rolls-Royce working round the clock on designs that could save the lives of people poleaxed by one of the most lethal diseases of modern times.

And if you’re Dyson, there is an added incentive – a fantastic shot at redemption following his unfortunate decision to up sticks to Singapore last year despite claiming full backing for Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Dyson claims to have been handed an order of 10,000 ventilators from the Government. With only 8,000 in hospitals currently, and the country needing an estimated 30,000, the engineering giant could make a substantial contribution.

Others are rising to the challenge. A consortium of more than a dozen industrial powerhouses including Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Ford, have been given the green light to build ventilators based on two existing designs: one produced by Smiths Group in Luton, which is commonly found in ambulances; and a second model made by Penlon in Oxfordshire, which will be modified for use on more acute patients.

There is also a separate consortium involving Meggitt and GKN, which is trying to come up with an entirely new version. Then there’s a team of university engineers, anaesthetists and surgeons attempting to come up with their own design. Winston Churchill would no doubt have approved of the heroic effort. It is reminiscent of the role that UK industry played in producing Spitfire planes during the Second World War.

Except there is one key difference – wartime manufacturing was directed by the Government to ensure essential military equipment was produced quickly and in great volume. Without that direction, the country would have faced seriously dangerous shortages.

Here, there is no coordinated effort. Instead what you have is lots of competing interests heading off in different directions, in a sort of bizarre commercial arms race. Even Dyson himself has declared: “The race is on.”

Many of these companies, while brilliant in their own fields, have no experience of making ventilators. Experts estimate that it can take as long as three years to design and bring a new model to market.

A more concerted approach is needed, directed and overseen by the Government. It makes far more sense for everyone to pool their resources and technological know-how into making the same product using an existing design.

Ministers could choose the best blueprint through a competitive tendering process, like it does for many other goods and services that are outsourced to the private sector on a daily basis.

Then whoever is picked, in partnership with the Government, could enlist the support of other manufacturers to produce the vital components such as the main control system, valves, regulators and the filters, in the volume needed to plug the shortfall.

Free marketeers will understandably wince at the thought of the state directing the economy in such a manner but, in times like this when thousands of lives are at stake, the rule book should be thrown out of the window.

Opportunity from adversity

What fortuitous timing. There was shopping centre giant Intu on the brink of going bust, when up popped coronavirus.

The upshot? A collapse in rents – only 29pc of its tenants have paid up this month. This time last year the figure was 77pc, which gives you a sense of the pummelling that retailers have endured.

Still, from adversity comes opportunity. The company says that the loss of more than two thirds of its rental income could be fatal because it would trip the terms of its borrowings. It is now asking lenders for more headroom and it is also seeking aid from the Government’s £330bn business support package.

Who knew that was what hapless boss Matthew Roberts was referring to when he claimed earlier this month that Intu still had “options” after an emergency £1.5bn cash call fell apart?

Nevermind that its own auditors raised fears about its future a fortnight ago. After all, this is a company now worth just £50m, carrying a debt load of £4.5bn. It was already heading into the arms of lenders, only Roberts seems content to pretend otherwise. He must be pinching himself now.

Chiquito feels bite of crisis

For some employers, Government support will come too late. Restaurant Group is reportedly putting its Chiquito chain into administration, with the loss of 1,500 jobs. The struggling Mexican brand had already been deemed surplus to requirements but the nationwide closure of restaurants, cafés and pubs has accelerated its demise. Expect to see plenty more of that.