What are ventilators and why are they important for coronavirus patients?

For patients suffering from the most severe effects of coronavirus, access to a ventilator could be a matter of life or death.

With ventilators in short supply, the Government has ordered 10,000 new machines from Dyson to help the NHS fight Covid-19.

The technology giant has designed a new medical ventilator at the request of Boris Johnson, which founder Sir James Dyson said could be delivered “in weeks”.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

Here are some things to know about the life-saving machines.

– What do ventilators do?

Ventilators are hospital bedside machines that help patients who are struggling to breathe on their own by pumping oxygen into their lungs.

Tubes are inserted through the windpipe which carries oxygen into the lungs and clears out carbon dioxide.

– Why are they important for coronavirus patients?

Covid-19 is a respiratory disease – it attacks the lungs and in some cases causes breathing problems.

The number of hospital patients needing respirators has exploded since the coronavirus pandemic began.

A PA infographic about total coronavirus cases in the UK
A PA infographic about total coronavirus cases in the UK

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said around 80% of people with Covid-19 recover without needing specialist treatment, but one in six people become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing.

The Government proposed in its specification for newly-manufactured ventilators that they would be for short-term stabilisation for a few hours, but this may be extended up to one-day use.

– How many ventilators does the NHS have?

The crucial medical equipment is in short supply in the UK.

The NHS has access to 8,175 ventilators, but the Government said 30,000 were needed to cope with the growing number of coronavirus cases.

Number 10 said it was working with businesses currently manufacturing ventilators, as well as design companies, to increase the number of machines.

– Who supplies them?

Dyson's CoVent ventilator
Dyson's CoVent ventilator

Ventilators are supplied to the NHS through approved companies which are listed on the NHS Supply Chain (NHS SC), which manages the sourcing, delivery and supply of healthcare products, services and food for NHS Trusts and healthcare organisations across England and Wales.

Approved manufacturers must first go through a tendering and evaluation process before being allowed to supply products to the NHS SC.

– How easy would it be for someone else to start making them?

A spokesman for manufacturing organisation Make UK has previously said that the use of contracted manufacturers to produce more ventilators was “feasible”.

“They can be given plans and designs, and told to stop what they’re doing and start work on whatever. Our feeling is that that model would work,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman added that enlisting large automobile manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover would be possible “over time” but that it was unlikely the companies would be able to adapt operations quickly enough to meet current demand.

The building containing the Department for Health and Social Care in London
The building containing the Department for Health and Social Care in London

– How long does it take to make one?

Dyson and other manufacturers making ventilators for coronavirus patients must pass regulatory tests before the Government purchases the machines.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said thousands of approved machines would arrive “in the coming weeks and thousands more in the pipeline to arrive in the coming months”.

Gtech, which specialises in making home and garden appliances, has designed a medical ventilator to be used in hospitals which could be manufactured in a “matter of days”.

– How much do they cost to make?

The Department of Health and Social Care said it was looking to design and manufacture a basic, functional ventilator using available components which they expected to be significantly cheaper than existing commercial ventilators.