Search and rescue officially privatised as Department for Transport signs new £1.6bn helicopter contract with Bristow Group

The Government has privatised search and rescue services in the UK after signing a £1.6bn contract with US-based firm the Bristow Group.
The company, which already provides helicopter services to the offshore energy industry, will take over the contract that has been mainly fulfilled by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Ministry of Defence for 70 years.
The Bristow Group will be given a 10-year contract to take over the service from 2015. The company will replace the ageing Sea King helicopters, which the MoD plan to retire in early 2016, with modern Sikorsky S-92s and AgustaWestland 189s.
The Government said the new deal will improve performance, claiming that helicopters will cover a larger area of the UK within one hour of take off and reduce flying times by around 20%.

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, said: “With 24 years of experience providing search and rescue helicopter services in the UK, the public can have great confidence in Bristow and their ability to deliver a first class service with state of the art helicopters.”

However there have been concerns expressed by rescue experts that the cuts could potentially cost lives. Civilian pilots may be stopped from working in bad weather by their commercial employers and lack the years of practical experience found in military personnel.

Bill Whitehouse, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, told the Guardian: “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’?”

Critics of the plan are also concerned that cutting two of the 12 search and rescue bases, and specifically the base in Portland which tens of thousands of people signed a petition to keep open, will leave some areas exposed in the English Channel.

Richard Drax, the Tory MP for South Dorset, said the closure of the Portland service is a “sheer act of folly” and that a source in search and rescue had estimated up to eight more lives a year could be lost without the base.

Opposition to the scheme has been longstanding. Last year Maria Eagle, the shadow transport secretary, also criticised the privatisation of the search and rescue service saying the exercise has been focused on cutting costs rather than “the need to maintain safety and security around the UK’s coastline”.