A small medical ventilator firm has hit out at the apparent special treatment given to the engineering firm Dyson on tax, after it was left unable to sell more than 100 devices built at the request of the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
The Lancashire-based NorVap started building ventilators at the onset of the Covid pandemic in mid-March 2020, after the government called on British industry to join a “ventilator challenge” to help the NHS treat a flood of Covid-19 patients.
Hancock told firms: “If you produce a ventilator, we will buy it. No number is too high.”
As it became clear that far fewer machines would be needed than first thought, the government changed its requirements, meaning NorVap’s model was no longer deemed suitable.
The company, an experienced ventilator manufacturer based in Barrowford, says it has willing buyers overseas, including foreign governments such as Mexico, which has been wrestling with soaring case numbers.
But it cannot export unless the machines have approval for use from a UK-approved standards body, via a process that can take 12 months or more without emergency regulatory approvals that are no longer available now that the crisis has abated.
NorVap’s managing director, Elisabeth Johnston-Hale, said the company wanted help to secure the clearance required to begin exporting, comparing NorVap’s struggle with the apparent ease with which Sir James Dyson secured tax relief from Boris Johnson.
“They said if you produce a ventilator, we will buy it,” Johnston-Hale said.
“The government has every right to change its mind and we understand why. But when you see that communication between the prime minister and Dyson you do begin to realise quite how much who you are matters and not what you do.”
Her comments refer to the emergence of texts from Johnson to James Dyson, assuring the billionaire inventor that he would “fix” it so that the firm’s employees would not pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make ventilators.
NorVap began production immediately after a call with the prime minister on 16 March, during which firms were urged to get going as soon as possible.
“Everyone was locked down but we were driving into work on deserted roads, doing 24-hour shifts, working on ventilators,” she said.
While NorVap’s model was based on an existing design that it already knew how to build, Dyson was inventing a protoype, known as the CoVent.
The CoVent was being considered for fast-track approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) when it became clear that thousands of machines were not required and the process was abandoned.
While the CoVent was ultimately also deemed surplus to requirements, with Dyson personally absorbing a £20m cost of development, NorVap said its machine had not been considered for fast-track approval and can no longer apply for it.
It has been left in the position of having to absorb the cost of building machines it cannot sell, a significant burden for a firm that is far smaller than Dyson, owned by Britain’s richest man.
“Dyson can get tax relief, but we could not even get the MHRA to look at our unit for approval,” Johnston-Hale said. “They are a household [vacuum cleaner] manufacturer. How is this possible?”
She said NorVap was not second-guessing the result of any regulatory approval process but believed it was suitable for treating Covid-19 patients and only wanted the opportunity to have it assessed.
At least 10 countries, mostly in the developing world, were ready to buy the machines if they were cleared in the UK, Johnston-Hale said.
The company has been reimbursed £31,200 for the work of directors and staff in the early days of the pandemic but the cost of developing the unsold machines is understood to be considerably more.
The government and the MHRA were approached for comment.