News & Views

“Brilliantly simple” hood could save lives in coronavirus crisis

Above: Hospital staff are frontline fighters in the effort to contain the pandemic.

A team of UK engineers is working on an innovative mask that uses principles borrowed from diving helmets to shield wearers from the devastating impact of the coronavirus.

The new hood-based mask could be manufactured in UK factories and made available to frontline medical staff as well as workers in key areas including care homes, supermarkets and factories making health-related products.

The development comes as Britain is battling to increase its stocks of protective equipment for key workers against a background of what appear to be severe shortages especially in the health and care sectors.

Mike Bradley of Greenwich University demonstrates a prototype of his group’s protective hood.

John Colvin, professor of viral epidemiology of the Natural Resources Institute at Greenwich University in London, said he “could not overstate the potential importance” of the device in slowing the impact of the disease. Colvin is among the directors of Worksafe Design, a company set up by the group to push the project to a commercial stage.

Consisting of a plastic hood enveloping the head fed with filtered air driven by fans, the device is being developed by a team of industry specialists coordinated by Mike Bradley, professor of particle technology at Greenwich and another Worksafe Design director.

Prof Neil Mortenson, a vice president at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "From what I can see of [the Greenwich hood] it could help meet an urgent need for new equipment, especially if could be made available quickly using UK suppliers, and on the assumption it passed necessary tests."

Kate Hills of Make It British, a manufacturing lobbying group, said; “This is the sort of opportunity Britain should be pursuing vigorously to use UK innovation to address the crisis.”

The UK arm of Japanese carmaker Toyota is among several companies evaluating how they might help the project move towards volume production.

Toyota has yet to decide how much assistance it could give. Some of its engineers are discussing the ideas behind the project with the Greenwich team.

Insufficient protection for health workers may be among the factors behind Britain’s slow progress in checking Covid-19.

The key to the device is that it is designed to protect the wearer from threats in his or her immediate surroundings, in this case the deadly virus. This is the opposite approach to most protective gear that health workers use, which mainly protects patients from pathogens carried by medical staff.

The shortages of adequate protective equipment are thought to be a factor behind both the rapid spread of Covid-19 and its devastating economic consequences as many areas of industry and commerce shut down.

The key field of caring for old and vulnerable people in residential homes and in their own properties is another exposed sector.

Kevin Lewis, chief executive of Caremark, a care agency whose staff of 6,000 look after 7,000 people at home, said: “We do not have the masks we need to protect either our care workers or our clients, many of whom are in the high risk category. The current situation is dire and consequently I would be delighted to help support this project."

Staff and old people in care homes are among the high-risk groups.

Shipments could go also to poor nations that experts fear could soon face immense threats due to the virus.

The World Health Organisation warned in early March that industry and governments needed to increase manufacturing of suitable masks by 40 per cent to meet rising global demand.

Up to April 13, 1.9m people had been reported as infected by the coronavirus, of whom 120,567 have died. The number of untested individuals carrying the highly contagious pathogen is thought to be much higher. The disease could cause 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the US, the country that has been worst affected so far.

On April 13, Britain had 88,621 reported cases and 11,329 deaths, which around mid-April were rising at about 10 per cent a day.

The design of the new units is based on the experiences of Prof Bradley and other members of his team in working with big companies in sectors such as nuclear power and chemicals. Many of these workers use protective equipment made by companies such as Sweden’s Esab and 3M of the US to minimize exposure to radiation or dangerous materials.

“The protective systems used in industry work effectively but are too expensive and cumbersome for ordinary workers,” says Prof Bradley, head of the Wolfson Centre for Bulk Solids Handling Technology at Greenwich University. “We have used the same ideas but adapted them to make a simpler but equally effective system that can be made for far less money.”

The units use disposable filters, housed in a plastic case worn on a belt, which does the job of screening out particles including viruses and the moisture droplets that carry them. Other parts of the design including hoses and the hoods themselves would be disposable while the casing would need to be decontaminated regularly with bleach or common disinfectants.

Peter Slee-Smith, director of Cambridgeshire-based Gatehouse Design and one of the engineers working with Bradley, said the device was “brilliantly simple and effective”. He is convinced it can be adapted for mass production with little difficulty. Jack Gover of Print My Part, a manufacturer of plastic components, said: “The manufacturing side of [the device] looks very credible. By utilising 'off-the-shelf' components where possible, we can keep the customised and more costly parts to a minimum.”

A key part of the development would be to ensure the system complies with safety standards, specifically over air flow and electrical compliance, and can be used effectively in hospitals. Charles Williams, managing director of Promtek, a systems engineering company in Stoke-on-Trent, who is also part of the Greenwich team, said that while he was sure the concepts behind the unit were sound, he and other engineers in the group were also addressing vital issues linked to “safety, practicality and usability”.

Both Slee-Smith and Williams are directors of Worksafe Design. Other directors include Isabeau Walker, a consultant anaesthetist at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Adrian Sims, managing director of Vent-Tech, a specialist in industrial ventilation based in Bristol.

Another important part of the project is to bring on board companies in the textile industry who would produce the disposable hoods. Jenny Holloway, managing director of Fashion Enter, a textiles company in London which is making large quantities of hospital gowns for use in the crisis, said: “This seems like a massive opportunity and we’d be ready to play a part, assuming we had the capacity.”

Joe McBride of Lancashire Textiles, a sewing specialist based in Burnley that is also making conventional masks, was happy to look at how his company could get involved.

The Greenwich device could be made in the UK to supplement protective equipment produced mainly in other countries.

News of the development comes amid a major UK effort to produce hospital ventilators, vital machines for treating patients with respiratory diseases such as that caused by the coronavirus.

While UK hospitals have access to about 8,000 of these machines, it is thought they will need around 18,000 in the next few weeks. Several groups of British manufacturers are gearing up to make them including Dyson, BAE Systems, Meggitt, JCB, Renishaw and The Technology Partnership (TTP) – the last three companies all being current sponsors of Made Here Now.

In addition, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, an industry /government technology group and another Made Here Now sponsor, is playing a key role in the effort. The catapult is co-ordinating a large consortium of manufacturers. Dick Elsy, the organisation’s chief executive, said he had fielded “hundreds of calls” from engineering companies wanting take part.

A test of government commitment

Britain’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic has hardly been one of exemplary planning. Much of the UK government’s response has been woeful, from failure to stock up on medical equipment such as test kits and ventilators to Boris Johnson’s lack of diligence in following official advice on “social distancing”, which probably lay behind the prime minister’s positive test for the virus and subsequent hospitalisation.

The development by an engineering team led by Greenwich University of a new protective mask for key workers in health and other sectors provides the government with a way to start to make amends.

Engineer Mike Bradley believes the invention could become an important weapon in combating coronavirus.

Ministers and officials should act speedily to examine the project. If they feel it has merit, they should assist both by funding prototypes and by facilitating rigorous testing primarily for safety. Assuming the devices comply with checks, they could be manufactured in UK plants and quickly rolled out to people on the front line.

It has been obvious for weeks that Britain’s inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment have contributed to the rapid rise in both the numbers of reported coronavirus cases and deaths. If workers such as ambulance drivers exposed to potential carriers of the virus do not have the necessary protection, they are more likely to become infected themselves. Some will become seriously ill. If, once in hospital, these people act as fresh sources of the disease, passing it to inadequately protected health staff, the pandemic spreads.

Health workers have emerged as key actors in what may turn out the biggest global crisis since the second world war.

Analysis of UK coronavirus deaths by comparison with Italy underline how the severity of the crisis has worsened in Britain in recent weeks. Italy has been the worst hit European country in terms of deaths.

It is regarded as being a little more than two weeks ahead of the UK in the way the pandemic has developed. The day-on-day increase in coronavirus cases registered in the UK tumbled between March 15 and April 13, from 30 per cent to 8 per cent, in line with Italy’s experience starting earlier. (The numbers are calculated as a five-day rolling average to smooth out daily fluctuations.) While these findings are at least mildly reassuring, data on deaths tell a different story. British hospital deaths associated with the virus were rising at a rate of 50 per cent on March 17 and slowed to 22 per cent on March 27, reflecting Italy’s experience.

Since then however the numbers - rather than continuing a gradual decline–stayed stubbornly high for some time before encouragingly edging down to 10 per cent on April 13. But even assuming the day-on-day rate of increase in deaths continues to fall slowly in the coming weeks, the cumulative number could reach 20,000 by early May. The disturbing data indicate that public authorities appear still some way from being in control of the crisis and that shortages of vital equipment, among them protection, may be an exacerbating factor.

Meanwhile ministers have promised they are moving “heaven and earth” to secure supplies of protective equipment including masks, gowns and goggles, much of it shipped from other countries including China. There has been no shortage of efforts to come up with home-grown solutions. Crowdfunding has raised large sums for individual doctors to purchase their own stocks. Production of DIY masks using 3D printing and conventional sewing has bloomed. A few small textiles manufacturers have commendably switched from other items to make masks.

But such efforts lack scale and government co-ordination. Ministers announced a grand “three-point” plan to tackle supply shortages only on April 10, when the UK death toll due to the virus was almost 9,000. This belated effort was launched more than five weeks after the World Health Organisation’s stark warning on March 3 – two days before Britain’s first fatality – that governments and industry needed to quickly ramp up manufacturing of protective equipment. In contrast, Whitehall has thrown resources towards the equally desperate shortage of ventilators. The problem was magnified by the UK’s dismal failure – officially blamed on a “communication problem” – to join a European Union scheme to procure jointly large stocks of the machines from recognised manufacturers. Several consortia of companies including big names such as BAE Systems, Dyson and JCB, have been quickly assembled and hope to produce the large numbers of ventilators needed within weeks. There is no certainty that such a last-minute effort will work. But at least it shows an interest in finding a solution.

Behind all these problems has been a shortage of people in the civil service capable of addressing the issues. The ranks of government officials with the necessary expertise have been thinned out by a mixture of financial austerity, the Conservative government’s distrust of public services and the redirection of many of Whitehall’s sharpest minds towards Brexit.

Allied to this has been officialdom’s apparent lack of ability to get to grips with a project being driven mainly by small and medium-sized businesses linked to a university, rather than the big companies that they feel they understand.

Driven by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, the government is starting a new high-powered innovation group – the Advanced Research Projects Agency – aimed at “high-risk, high-reward” programmes.

The need to support the ideas behind the Greenwich mask could provide a key early test of ministers’ commitment to both backing ground-breaking ideas and putting them to maximum use.