Manufacturers may be ordered to abandon normal operations and build parts for ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic under wartime laws normally used to supply kit for soldiers on the battlefield.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has asked firms how they can help rush ventilators into mass production to get more of them to hospitals.
One option being considered is the introduction of a so-called Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) – effectively a demand from government for businesses to switch to producing essential kit.
In the past, these have been used to fast-track production and purchases of vehicles to protect troops in Iraq from improvised explosive devices.
It came as a torrent of offers to help flooded in, by companies ranging from the biggest blue chips to Formula One teams.
An industry source said: “We could see UORs being used, which effectively tell companies to drop everything and build what they are told to in the national interest.
“Manufacturers are given the designs and patents and simply told to get on with it.”
Trade groups have already said that firms will do whatever is necessary to fight Covid-19, after Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said on Sunday that the Government will buy “as many ventilators as can be made”.
No 10 has also said it would not rule out asking factories to start making protective equipment such as facemasks and gloves if supplies run short.
The TSSA union has demanded the Government set up a so-called Ministry of Supply, taking over the running of public transport and freight so that medical staff and other key workers can provide vital services.
The Cabinet Office is asking Britain’s leading industrial companies including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, JCB, Unipart and GKN and those in the car industry to develop ways of scaling up production of ventilators and parts for them.
It is likely that small and medium-sized firms which have contracts with the major players are better equipped to come to the rescue, because their production lines are more flexible.
Industry bodies such as MakeUK and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult are working together to run the response.
Dick Elsy, the chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which develops advanced production processes, said: “We have had a torrent of offers of support from industry, from big companies to Formula 1 teams whose engineers have seen racing cancelled. There is no shortage of engineering talent to tackle this.”
He added that the focus was on identifying an existing design of ventilator and then working out how British industry could ramp up its production.
It is understood that last week two separate designs of ventilator – which act as an artificial set of lungs and are used to treat respiratory diseases such as Covid-19 – were being examined to work out how production can be scaled up.
The strength of the response could see tooling up of production lines to begin making parts within weeks once a design is agreed on, Mr Elsy said.
He said: “This is a self-help situation. We need to work out a design and what’s needed to produce it.
“The key is to use British suppliers to build parts, because there will be a global demand for components required for ventilators. Identifying supply chain bottlenecks and working around them is crucial.”
A longer-term plan could see the creation of a less complex design of ventilator than those already in production, which would be quicker and easier to source materials and parts for as well as to build.
The Government is holding a conference call with industry leaders on Monday evening to work out detailed requirements of what is needed from the sector and how it can respond.
The sensitivity of the subject means that details of the agenda are being closely held.
Tony Hague, the chief executive of PP Control & Automation, a sub-contract manufacturer with experience of assembling medical equipment, said the country’s small businesses stood ready to help.
Speaking for a group of similar-size manufacturers based in the Midlands, he added: “UK manufacturing will rise to the challenge.
“There are some practical things that we will need, such as the expertise of the ventilator manufacturers and a bill of materials, and then it will be a case of looking at innovative ways where we can support production as quickly as possible.”
However, there are concerns that work could be slowed by the UK’s dependence on China and south-east Asia for many electronic components.
Data from MakeUK suggests there has been a big drop-off in activity among British companies working in the electronics industry as deliveries were interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.
Stephen Phipson, the chief executive of MakeUK, added: “Practically, building ventilators in the UK can be done as we have a very well established contract manufacturing sector which is well used to taking patents and designs and producing a range of systems.
“The main challenge is likely to be the sourcing of components, much of which are electronic, may not be made in the UK and more likely to come from Asia – which brings its own problems.”
However, with enough resources, production in British factories could be swapped over to make these parts.
British industrial titans are more likely to get involved by providing staff and resources such as space in which to manufacture products. Honda is understood to have been contacted about using part of its Swindon plant for production.
Defence business GKN could also play a key role using to its 3D printing division, which can quickly be swapped to produce new designs. The business – which produces aerospace and automotive components – has been contacted by the Government and is determining if its facilities can be utilised.
A spokesman said: “We are absolutely exploring what is possible, and will get involved if we can.”
JCB chairman Lord Bamford added: “We have research and engineering teams actively looking at the Government’s request. It is unclear what we can do to assist but, as a British company, we will to whatever we can to help during the unprecedented times our country is facing.”
Rolls-Royce said it is keen to do whatever it can, but added that until it fully understands what is required it cannot be sure about the services needed.
As wider industry responded to the call, automotive sector firms into shutdown. Plants across the UK and Europe announced temporary closures as coronavirus disrupts supplies and staffing.
Vauxhall-owner PSA Group said its UK plants will close this week, part of a wider stoppage of operations across Europe until until March 27.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is also halting production at most of its European plants until March 27.
Ferrari has already announced its plant in Modena will close temporarily.
Parts shortages at Volkswagen Group, the largest car company in Europe, mean it is preparing to stop production at several of its plants across the Continent including its Wolfsburg base in Germany.
Renault announced it was shutting down production at its 12 industrial sites in France until further notice.