Thousands of ventilators to treat Covid-19 sitting idle – report

Thousands of ventilators bought to treat Covid-19 patients are sitting in warehouses due to a lack of demand, according to a new report.

A National Audit Office (NAO) study found that the overall cost of programmes to acquire ventilators has been higher than would be expected “in normal times”, but that efforts had been made to control costs.

It found that £569 million had been spent overall on ventilators by the Government, through programmes set up by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Office.

At the start of the pandemic, modelling from China suggested that up to 30,000 ventilators would be needed to treat patients with coronavirus in the UK.

By early August, the Government had acquired more than 30,000 ventilators, including around 9,100 already available to the NHS, 2,600 units purchased by the Department of Health and 12,300 built through the Cabinet Office’s ventilator challenge programme, the NAO found.

In addition, by July 9, the NHS had 27,700 non-invasive ventilators and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which act as an interim treatment for people struggling to breathe.

This included up to 17,800 purchased by the Department of Health since March.

The NAO study said that most of these new ventilators are “being held in reserve”, adding: “As at September 16 only around 2,150 mechanical ventilator units acquired through the programmes had been dispatched to the NHS.

“This is because the anticipated demand did not materialise.

“The remaining units, which were largely purchased in case of increased demand in future waves of Covid-19, are stored in warehouses, including the Ministry of Defence’s facility at Donnington, as a central reserve.”

The NAO said the Department of Health and NHS England and Improvement had said some of these devices are now being distributed to NHS trusts to prepare for potential future waves of Covid-19.

The NAO study also found that the Department of Health has spent around £292 million excluding VAT on its ventilation programme.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office has spent around £277 million excluding VAT on the ventilator challenge.


The NAO said the Government had prioritised speed over cost, but added: “Inevitably, given the approach the departments took, the overall costs of both programmes are higher than we, or the departments, would expect to see in normal times.

“However, both departments maintained sufficient record of their programmes’ rationale, the key spending decisions they took and the information they had to base those on.

“They also put in place effective programme management, controlled costs where they could and recovered some of their committed spending once it became apparent that fewer ventilators were needed than they had originally believed.”

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

“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.

“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.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Throughout this global pandemic we have done whatever it takes to protect the NHS and save lives.

“As the NAO report acknowledges, we acted rapidly to increase the numbers of ventilators available to the NHS, including through a national effort with British industry to make thousands of new devices, which meant every patient who has required a ventilator during the pandemic was able to access one.

“The NHS now has access to over 30,000 mechanical and 15,000 non-invasive ventilators. This is more than three times as many as it had at the start of the pandemic so we are well prepared to meet any future need.”