Build ventilators to fight coronavirus, Britain asks automakers


LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson will ask British manufacturers on Monday to retool production to start making specialist health equipment including ventilators and will look at using hotels as emergency hospitals to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

Britain has taken a distinctly different approach to tackling coronavirus from European countries such as Italy, Spain and France, which have imposed stringent lockdowns to try to slow the spread of the disease.

"The prime minister will speak to British manufacturers including Unipart Group to ask them to support production of essential medical equipment for the NHS," a Downing Street spokesman said. Unipart is a logistics company that works across various industries including automotive.

"He will stress the vital role of Britain’s manufacturers in preparing the country for a significant spread of coronavirus and call on them to step up and support the nationwide effort to fight the virus."

It was not immediately clear how a manufacturer of jet engines or cars could turn to producing specialist medical equipment, what international parts would be needed or what certification would be required. Unipart Group declined further comment.

Ventilators are used to keep people with coronavirus alive if they have lung complications after acquiring the virus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there had been an enthusiastic response to the prime minister's call for ventilator production.

"We've got high quality engineering in this country, and we want anybody who has the manufacturing capability to turn to a manufacturer of ventilators to do that," Hancock said.

Johnson is due to give a news conference later on Monday and will also hold a call with major companies.

Rolls-Royce, a British engineering company that makes cars and the jet engines for the biggest Boeing and Airbus planes, said it was ready to help in any way it could.

"We understand that the government is exploring ways in which businesses can help deal with the outbreak of COVID-19," a spokesman said. "We are keen to do whatever we can to help the government and the country at this time and will look to provide any practical help we can."

As the United Kingdom scrambled to prepare the National Health Service, which opened after World War II in 1948, for a steep increase in cases, the government was even looking at using hotels to back up hospitals.

"We’ve seen that ... many hotels are empty, so we’ve got ready built facilities for looking after people, but the critical thing is that they need oxygen supply and the ventilation equipment," Hancock said on Sunday.

British cases of coronavirus rose 20% to 1,372 on Sunday. The number of deaths in Britain increased to 35.