Two more companies have secured a total of 20,000 provisional orders for medical ventilators, taking the number of devices in the pipeline for the NHS to more than 61,000.
Sagentia, a subsidiary of the Cambridge-based Science Group, said it had designed and built a prototype ventilator, with government funding, that should be simpler to produce than some traditional models because it did not require components sourced externally.
The company believes it can make the ventilators itself, or in partnership with one of several sub-contractors it is holding talks with. But its device still needs approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
It is sending 20 trial units to the MHRA. If the regulator gives the green light, the government has agreed to buy 10,000 machines, which could be produced in a matter of weeks.
The defence group Babcock has also secured an order in principle for 10,000 ventilators that it intends to deliver working with the German-owned medical equipment group Draeger. The machines also require regulatory approval.
The government has said it needs 30,000 ventilators to deal with an expected peak of Covid-19 cases, but it has ordered significantly more, a strategy one insider said offered an “insurance policy” in case one or more projects failed.
A government spokesperson said: “The government has issued a number of ‘letters of intent’ to suppliers to source new ventilators as part of the ventilator challenge. This is in line with the prime minister’s commitment to produce as many new ventilators as possible.
“We will announce orders following devices passing the regulatory approvals process and confirmed delivery schedules.”
The NHS currently has 8,175 ventilators and the government has also placed an order for 10,000 with the engineer Dyson for a new machine called the CoVent, which has also yet to receive MHRA approval.
A consortium called Ventilator Challenge UK, involving Airbus and Rolls-Royce, has agreed to provide up to 15,000 more, scaling up production of two existing designs from the specialist firms Smiths Medical and Penlon. A further 8,000 have been ordered from abroad.
With the Sagentia and Babcock models added to the order total, the NHS should have around 61,000 ventilators. However, at least 30,000 of those are entirely new machines that have never been used on patients.
Sagentia’s ventilator is built using laser-cutting technology and computer numerical control machining, techniques that the company says minimises the number of components that need to be sourced, allowing many major manufacturers to produce the machine with existing equipment.
The Science Group chairman, Martyn Ratcliffe, said the effort was the “best of British engineering”.
The Guardian understands that letters of intent with more potential suppliers are set to follow.