'Holy Trinity' of ventilator callers leave James O'Brien 'appalled at government cronyism'

22 April 2021, 15:05

Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Three callers who sell, work with and fix ventilators left James O'Brien "appalled" at the government's "unbelievable cronyism" when buying NHS equipment.

This week, Labour called for an urgent investigation into Boris Johnson’s conduct following revelations about texts with entrepreneur Sir James Dyson and David Cameron's lobbying.

Senior Labour MP Rachel Reeves called for a powerful Commons committee to carry out the inquiry after it emerged the prime minister told Sir James he would "fix" an issue over the tax status of his employees.

The businessman's company had sought to build ventilators for the NHS as the coronavirus crisis first gripped the nation last year.

However, a series of callers left James O'Brien baffled at why ministers sought the help of the inventor and other businessmen rather than companies already producing the machines.

Read more: Govt PPE and Covid contracts worth 3.7bn raise corruption concerns - report

Watch: Business Secretary tells LBC PM behaved 'appropriately' in Dyson texts

James O'Brien spoke to three callers who sell, work with and fix ventilators
James O'Brien spoke to three callers who sell, work with and fix ventilators. Picture: PA / LBC

The first to ring in was a woman who works for a ventilation company in the UK.

She told James she had "plenty" of ventilators ready for use by the NHS but the Department of Health "wasn't interested at all".

"It is absolutely mind-blowing. They did eventually get back to us four or six weeks later saying 'OK we'll have them', but obviously they'd already gone as we'd shipped them to Scotland or Ireland," she said.

"If he wanted to keep it in the country... why have we bought so many Chinese ventilators at £50,000 a go, bearing in mind the average ventilator costs between £10,000-15,000?"

The caller said she found it "all very bizarre".

"Not only that, they're absolutely useless. I regularly go into clinical engineering departments in the NHS and they're all lined up with stickers saying 'Out of Use, Do Not Use'. They haven't even lasted six months."

A perplexed James responded: "You're saying we wasted money on overpriced ventilators that weren't fit for purpose? While at the time, the prime minister was busy taking a few moments off from playing Candy Crush on his phone to swap cosy texts with Sir James Dyson?"

The next caller was a man who operates ventilators for a living.

He said he "does not understand" how somebody with no experience can start making the machines when they are such complex pieces of technology that can take two to three years to develop.

James questioned why the prime minister thought "the digger man and the vacuum man" would be able to invent new machines and "pluck them out the ether in a matter of weeks".

The caller replied, saying "it makes absolutely no sense", adding that if a ventilator came along after taking just weeks to develop and with Dyson stamped on it, "I would feel very nervous using that ventilator, I wouldn't trust it as far as I could throw it".

The last call was from a man who fixes ventilators in intensive care.

He told James he couldn't believe it when he heard Boris Johnson say during the first wave of the pandemic that he was going to get companies making them "just like that" because of the "incredibly complex" technology involved in manufacturing the machines.

The caller said patients were on them for "weeks and months" in some cases and that you "cannot put someone on an old or new mechanical ventilator just chugging up and down and expect them to breathe normally".

He backed up the first caller's story about Chinese ventilators flooding the NHS with machines they "didn't need or didn't want".

Bewildered, James replied: "You're the Holy Ghost in this Trinity. We took a call from someone who sells ventilators, we've taken a call from somebody who works with ventilators in intensive care, and we've taken a call from someone who fixes and adapts ventilators for medical need.

"Every, single one of you has said the exact same thing, which is that you have no clue whatsoever what the hell they were playing at asking people like Dyson and the JCB bloke to invent or produce ventilators from scratch."