Critics of privatisation plan say fewer helicopters will be flown by civilian pilots, with sea and mountain rescue made less effective
A controversial move to privatise the UK’s military search-and-rescue helicopter service should be halted, say experts, rescuers and the rescued, amid fears that a new civilian system may lead to fewer lives being saved.
Search-and-rescue professionals, doctors, mountain-rescue volunteers, workers in the maritime industry and people who have been saved fear a new civilian privatised service will not be as effective as the one now provided mainly by RAF and Royal Navy pilots and crew.
There are deep worries that plans to cut two of the 12 search-and-rescue (SAR) bases dotted around Britain’s coastline will leave some areas exposed, particularly the Channel.
Critics say the new service will include fewer and in some cases smaller helicopters that operate over shorter ranges. There are fears that pilots could be barred by the new contractor from flying in harsh weather conditions, particularly in mountainous areas.
But the biggest unknown is how effective civilian pilots will be in the rescue role, compared with their military counterparts who have been involved in SAR for 70 years.
Louise Ellman, chair of the Commons transport select committee, said: “There is still concern about the possible risk to life by the change. I would like the process halted. I am disturbed there has been no proper consultation. There should be a pause to give the chance for people to put across their views. It’s concerning that ministers don’t appear to be listening or to engage with people who have expressed worries.”
The government will announce this spring which company or companies will be charged with providing SAR capability – helicopters and staff – for 10 years from 2016. It argues that it is under intense pressure to modernise the service because the military’s ageing Sea King helicopters will retire in 2016, and it wants military personnel redeployed to frontline defence roles.
The future of the 275 military personnel who currently fly search and rescue, including Prince William, is unclear. Some will leave the armed services and join the civilian operation. Others will be moved to different areas within the military, but there is unease among some that jobs could be lost.
Ministers argue that faster, more efficient helicopters than the Sea Kings used by the RAF and Navy will provide an even better service. The Department for Transport, which is responsible for SAR, claims the new civilian crews will be as effective as military personnel.
Currently the SAR service is provided by the military at eight bases and by a civilian operation run on behalf of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency at a further four. Under the new system two of the bases – RAF Boulmer in Northumberland and the coastguard base at Portland in Dorset – will be cut.
At half of the remaining 10 bases the contractor will be required to provide helicopters with smaller capacities than the Sea Kings. They will be required to cover smaller ranges than the Sea Kings cover.
The privatisation has alarmed experienced civilian volunteers who rescue thousands of people a year from the UK’s mountains, cliffs and cave systems. They fear that the new contractor could cut back on services to protect profits and helicopters, and fail to invest in live training exercises with volunteer rescue teams.
Bill Whitehouse, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said: “There’s concern whether the smaller aircraft will be able to do everything the Sea King can. Obviously there’s nervousness when you see change coming. We’re happy with what we’ve got.”
Whitehouse said there were concerns that a commercial firm would have a different ethos to the RAF and the Navy. “To what extent would a new commercial service pull out the stops when the chips are down? Will they point to a contract and say, ‘that’s not in it’?”
Willie Anderson, team leader of Cairngorm mountain rescue team, south of Inverness, one of the UK’s busiest, said he believed the RAF and navy should simply be given new helicopters rather than see the service entirely privatised. “We’ve had a fantastic service from the military,” he said. “The difficulty I have about privatisation is that somewhere down the road someone will have one eye on the casualty and the other eye on the balance sheet.”
Another Cairngorms veteran, Willie Ross, who has volunteered with the mountain rescue team for 25 years, said: “To be basic and brutal about it, as soon as you introduce a profit into it, you’re in a different ball game altogether.”
There are intense anxieties about the closure of Portland on the Channel coast, which is currently run by civilians for the coastguard. The Department for Transport believes the area can be covered from Lee-on-the-Solent in Hampshire, Chivenor in north Devon and Culdrose in west Cornwall. But Richard Drax, the Tory MP for South Dorset, has branded the removal of the Portland service a “sheer act of folly”. He claimed sources within the current SAR service had predicted that up to eight more lives a year could be lost if the base were closed.
Drax has said the changes are being rushed through without enough consultation because a previous plan to set up a new SAR service involving both civilians and the military collapsed in 2011. The timetable is tight because the ageing Sea Kings are due to be retired in March 2016.
Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions calling for Portland to be saved. Alan McNamee, who is chairman of a campaign to save the base, said he believed he and his teenage daughter, Gaby, would not be alive if the Portland helicopter had not been there to pluck them off the roof of his car in floods last year.
The government argues that it would have to scrap the tendering process and start again from scratch if it had to carry out further consultation, and it would cost £300m to extend the life of the Sea Kings by two years to allow that to happen.
A DfT spokesman said: “The future service will provide comprehensive search-and-rescue helicopter coverage for the UK. Utilising a fleet of modern, state-of-the-art helicopters, the service will operate from 10 bases, and modelling shows that the speed of the new fleet will improve average flight times to incidents by approximately 20%.
“Commercial helicopter operators have provided SAR services under contract to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency for 30 years with great success.”