Ventilators have become shorthand for the rapid advance of Covid-19 worldwide. (Photo: iStock)

Britain faces a “massive shortage” of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said on Wednesday.

“England is very poorly equipped,” said Andreas Wieland, chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, which says it is the world’s largest ventilator maker.

“They’re going to have a massive shortage, once the virus really arrives there,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Ventilators, running in the thousands of dollars per unit, are used to help people with respiratory difficulties to breathe. Worldwide, the devices have become shorthand for the rapid advance of the disease.

Germany’s Draegerwerk last week got a government order for 10,000, equal to a typical year’s production.

Wieland’s company in the Swiss Alps has boosted normal production of some 15,000 ventilators annually by 30-40% and now can produce about 80 ventilators daily.

Last week, the company shipped 400 ventilators to Italy, whose intensive care units have been overwhelmed by more than 35,000 cases of the rapidly spreading virus and almost 3,000 deaths.

About 50% of those with coronavirus in Italy accepted into intensive care units are dying, compared with typical mortality rates of 12% to 16% in such units.

Wieland said a similar outbreak in Britain, now with more than 2,600 cases and over 110 deaths, would swamp the system there, too.

“They are not well equipped with ventilators and intensive care stations,” he said. “They invested very little, and I think now they will pay the price.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has acknowledged the existing stock of 5,000 ventilators is inadequate.

“We think we need many times more than that and we are saying if you produce a ventilator then we will buy it,” he said earlier this week. “No number is too high.”

Wieland said he was in “close contact” with UK medical leaders and aimed to prioritise shipments there soon, though for now Italy was taking precedence. He also has orders from the United States, Turkey, France and China.

Wieland is skeptical, however, of the British government’s recent call for manufacturers from other industries including Ford, Honda and Rolls Royce to help make equipment including ventilators.

“I wish them the best of luck,” Wieland said. “I do not believe anything will come of it. These devices are very complex. It takes us four to five years” to develop a new product.

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