ROBERT HARDMAN: Miraculous British ingenuity that will help save lives – and make your spirits soar 


Every pandemic in history has had its share of miracle potions and magic cures, most of which, sadly, have been anything but.

Nonetheless, there is a real sense of the miraculous about the contraption sitting before me in a factory workshop on the outskirts of Worcester.

It is the prototype of a mass- production hospital ventilator, built from scratch in a week — and it has been running for several days without a glitch.

In Wales, meanwhile, an ex-Army medical officer-turned-hospital consultant, Rhys Thomas, has teamed up with a local engineering company to produce a basic ventilator which could release sophisticated equipment for the most critical patients.

Nick Grey is a former vacuum cleaner engineer who created Gtech (short for Grey Technology) in 2002. He has now invented a ventilator to help with the coronavirus crisis

It has already been used with encouraging results on a Covid-19 patient in Llanelli. A further four are being sent for hospital trials this weekend, and it could enter production shortly.

Across the UK, household names from Dyson to McLaren and Rolls-Royce are busy on similar projects as the Government seeks to triple its stock of ventilators from around 10,000 to 30,000 in a matter of weeks.

No fewer than 3,000 companies, large and small, have stepped forward to help. In short, we are witnessing the greatest instant industrial revolution since World War II, when Churchill created the Ministry of Aircraft Production on the eve of the Battle of Britain. That was a decision that changed the course of history.

Back then, British production lines re-tooled almost overnight to make Spitfires and other aircraft.

Race

Today, we need ventilators. And so I have come to meet one of the teams in the vanguard of what is a genuine life-or-death race against time.

I am at Gtech, the Worcester-based maker of cordless vacuum cleaners, hedge-strimmers and much else.

But they’re not bothered with household appliances right now. Instead, they have built what, to the untrained eye, could almost be an A-Level physics project.

However, in a matter of days, one of these may already be supporting a Covid-19 victim. There is nothing remotely fancy about this modest assembly of tubes and cylinders. There are no flashing lights, no screens. It has been specifically designed to be electricity-free and run off an oxygen tank in order to make it as portable as possible — and the finished product will have just three controls (apart from the on/off switch).

I am at Gtech (pictured), the Worcester-based maker of cordless vacuum cleaners, hedge-strimmers and much else, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

I am at Gtech (pictured), the Worcester-based maker of cordless vacuum cleaners, hedge-strimmers and much else, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

But it fulfils the original brief from the Government: give us a machine that can pump 400ml of air into the lungs 12 times a minute, with variable speed and pressure settings.

Two senior consultants from a major hospital came to inspect it on Sunday, liked what they saw and suggested some modifications (all now completed).

Another inspection was due last night. Subject to alterations and approvals, the doctors said they could do with 80 of these machines.

‘We would aim to make 100 a day,’ says Nick Grey, the former vacuum cleaner engineer who created Gtech (short for Grey Technology) in 2002 and has since sold more than 22 million products in 19 countries. Never before, though, has he got a product from the ‘pencil and paper’ stage to production in just over a week. But then, as he points out, we’ve never known a challenge like this.

It was in the early hours of Sunday, March 15 that Nick, 51, received an email from the Government’s Chief Commercial Officer asking for help.

‘At first I thought it was some sort of hoax,’ he says.

Come Sunday afternoon, though, he realised it was deadly serious when he was invited to join a conference call to discuss specifications.

So he contacted his research and development (R&D) team the same day with a simple message: ‘We’re going to do ventilators.’

They quickly rose to the challenge. Nick tracked down an old hospital ventilator — a Blease 2200 — on eBay, of all places, for £200 — to focus minds. One former employee drove up from Dorset there and then to assist.

‘By Tuesday, we had a ventilator that was working but not automatic,’ says Nick.

‘By Thursday, we had one running reliably and, on Friday afternoon, we had a video conference with the Government and a panel of clinicians.

‘They were very positive about what they saw, asked for some changes and told us to move on to the next stage — preparing to manufacture.’

Nick (pictured) reminds me of the late Trevor Bayliss. I once spent a fascinating day in Trevor’s shed on Eel Pie Island in the River Thames, the same one in which he invented, among other things, the clockwork radio, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

Nick (pictured) reminds me of the late Trevor Bayliss. I once spent a fascinating day in Trevor’s shed on Eel Pie Island in the River Thames, the same one in which he invented, among other things, the clockwork radio, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

The last piece of the jigsaw has been to perfect a pneumatic valve which Nick calls a ‘spring toggle’ to switch the direction of air flow, using a spring rather than gravity.

As I arrive at the high-tech plant outside Worcester, one of Nick’s team dashes up with the news that a business in Wolverhampton has just called to say it can make this device and will have some ready overnight.

‘I want to keep the components to a minimum — right now it’s 23 — to make it as easy as possible for other people to manufacture it,’ Nick explains.

He has already had calls from as far afield as Australia, Spain and Venezuela.

‘We’ll make what we can here, but we want people making them wherever. As soon as the plans are approved, anyone can have them. There’s no patent and I’m not asking for money,’ says Nick. ‘There is no reason why, in time, even a good school DT department couldn’t make one.’

Inside the R&D ‘modelling shop’, I watch his prototype puffing away while some of his engineers — all young, enthusiastic think-out-of-the-box types — beaver away at their workbenches refining valves and tubes.

Persistence

Here is a really rather moving reminder of that great British talent for deploying lateral thinking, dogged persistence and a few bits and bobs to produce world-changing inventions. ‘When it comes to the pinch, I think Britain is generally pretty good at ideas,’ says Nick, pointing to our wartime development of radar.

He reminds me of the late Trevor Bayliss. I once spent a fascinating day in Trevor’s shed on Eel Pie Island in the River Thames, the same one in which he invented, among other things, the clockwork radio.

He was later made a CBE and was praised by world leaders, including Nelson Mandela, for changing the lives of millions.

There is a touch of Sir Christopher Cockerell, too.

‘Who’s Christopher Cockerell?’ asks Nick.

I remind him that he was the man who invented the hovercraft with two tin cans and a vacuum cleaner. ‘I never was much taken with school,’ laughs the father of four young children.

As Nick runs through his spreadsheet of all the local metal-bashing, steel-bending, laser-printing companies with whom he and his 180-strong staff work on a regular basis — and who are flocking to help — I am also reminded what a formidable engineering powerhouse we have in the West Midlands. On my way out, a man is waiting for Nick in the car park. He introduces himself as Derek French, a 64-year-old ex-‘spanner man’ from the local motor trade. He has just heard about the ventilator project on the radio and wants to work on the production line — free of charge.

We are not there just yet. The Government says it is at the ‘proof of concept’ stage with several devices, and hopes to see the first prototypes enter production ‘within weeks’.

The Gtech Ventilator will still need fine-tuning. Many other great British companies may come up with something similar or better.

But right now, after watching this truly uplifting exercise in brainstorming and hard graft on a Worcester industrial estate, I am more convinced than ever: we ARE going to nail this thing.

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