‘Ventilator challenge’ to equip NHS for Covid lost £143m of public money

Bill included paying defence firm Babcock £30m even though no machines were bought from the company

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Ministers have written off more than £140m that was spent on developing ventilators that were never put into use in the NHS in the months following the start of the Covid crisis, the Observer can disclose.

The plan to create new, domestically produced ventilators was unveiled at the start of the pandemic. The prime minister is said to have called the project “Operation Last Gasp”. However, cabinet office accounts published last week reveal that “constructive losses” from the so-called “ventilator challenge” programme amounted to some £143m. The losses are referred to in a section documenting “write-offs of unrecoverable debts and fruitless payments”. It also states that £6m was written off by the department on machines to manufacture face-coverings.

Problems with the ventilator challenge began early last year, with complaints from some companies that their expertise was not used, while others with no relevant experience attempted to build devices. The project was designed to increase the number of NHS ventilators from 8,000 to 30,000, though this was later revised down to 18,000. As the pandemic continued, it became clear the NHS would not require this number.

The National Audit Office (NAO) revealed last September that the government spent £569m buying 20,900 ventilators, but said that a lack of demand has meant that NHS hospitals have used only a few. Most were stored by a ministry of defence warehouse. The NAO concluded that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and cabinet office paid a lot more than usual for the devices but were right to do so given the threat to life. “In the event, the new ventilators were not needed at the April [2020] peak because demand was considerably lower than the reasonable worst-case scenario,” the NAO said.

However, the ventilator challenge has become an example of how the government scrambled to react after discovering that contingency planning did not cover a new disease such as Covid 19. According to information uncovered under the Freedom of Information Act by the Good Law Project, the bill included paying defence firm Babcock £30m for ventilator designs, though no ventilators were bought from the company.

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project said: “Good procurement isn’t just important because it prevents public money feeding private interests. It’s also the best guard against wastefulness.”

Government insiders said that costs from the ventilator challenge programme and mask-making project included securing materials and parts to enable manufacturing lines to be set up. They added that modelling at the outset of the pandemic had suggested that the NHS was going to run out of ventilators.

A government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have done whatever it takes to protect the NHS and save lives. This included launching the ventilator challenge, which saw more than 15,000 new machines delivered to the NHS, meaning every patient who needs a ventilator has been able to access one.

“We also made more than 13 million masks for public use and will make millions more in the coming months. This has helped ensure public demand for face coverings has not affected the supply of higher-grade masks needed by NHS frontline staff.”

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