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18 Mar, 2020 21:14

‘Very poorly equipped’: UK facing dire scarcity of ventilators as Covid-19 cases increase, says largest manufacturer

‘Very poorly equipped’: UK facing dire scarcity of ventilators as Covid-19 cases increase, says largest manufacturer

The UK’s National Health Service is facing a “massive shortage” of ventilators needed to treat severe coronavirus cases and will “pay the price” for failing to invest ahead of time, according to the CEO of a Swiss manufacturer.

The British government’s failure to invest properly in intensive care equipment will come back to haunt it, Andreas Wieland, CEO of Hamilton Medical, told Reuters on Wednesday. “They invested very little, and I think now they will pay the price.” He added that the full force of the epidemic has not truly hit the UK, which had 2,600 confirmed cases and 100 deaths at the time of the interview, and the worst is yet to come.

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England is very poorly equipped… They’re going to have a massive shortage, once the virus really arrives there.”

Hamilton claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of the devices, which are needed to help severe coronavirus cases and other patients with respiratory difficulties to breathe. However, even after kicking up production by 30 to 40 percent in an effort to keep up with the raging pandemic, the company can still only produce about 80 ventilators every day. The machines sell for about £15,400 (€16,383), according to the Financial Times. 

Weiland said that while he had been in “close contact” with UK medical authorities, the much worse situation in Italy was currently eating up his resources. Nearly 3,000 people have died of coronavirus in the country as of Wednesday, and more than 35,000 have been diagnosed with the disease. He warned that a similar-scale outbreak would utterly overwhelm the British system.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged British manufacturers to consider repurposing their factories toward making more ventilators, noting that the country had a mere 5,000 but needed “many times” that. To free up resources, he said the NHS would be postponing non-urgent surgeries, drafting recently-retired doctors, and sending doctors working in non-hospital roles back to serving patients. However, critics of the plan, including Doctors’ Association UK chair Dr. Rinesh Parmar, pointed out that the NHS has nearly 43,000 nurse and 10,000 doctor vacancies. “It’s pointless acquiring new ventilators without enough highly-trained staff to operate them,” Parmar told the Guardian.

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Successive governments have chipped away at the UK’s state-run NHS system, leaving it dangerously underfunded in what some high-ranking members of the British Medical Association have claimed in recent years is a deliberate effort to force it to fail so that it can be profitably privatized.

Until (and unless) that happens, however, the US remains the sole major Western country that does not provide its citizens free healthcare. The US is also facing massive medical supply shortages, from ventilators to masks to a staggering array of drugs that are made overseas – many in China, where production has not yet recovered from the devastating coronavirus outbreak.

According to the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the US only has about 21 percent of the 960,000 ventilators it will likely need at the peak of a coronavirus outbreak in the country, and while hospitals are scurrying to rent more as manufacturers focus their energies on churning out extra machines, time is running out. Adding to the disaster-in-waiting, like the UK, the US is sorely lacking in qualified respiratory therapists, specialist nurses, and doctors with the proper skills to hook a patient up to a ventilator.

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