The UK Government is currently looking to replace the existing Search and Rescue (SAR) service, run by a combination of RAF, Royal Navy and Coastguard helicopters, with a privatised version. At the moment the UK Government is seeking companies to tender for the contract. As taxpayers we already pay for the existing SAR service, and if privatised we will pay for the new one as well, albeit the work will be carried out by a private contractor. To me it is a dangerous and unnecessary move. Unfortunately, as this was proposed by Labour and is now being pursued by the Tories, I’d say it was likely that this will be implemented, unless there is a real uproar caused amongst voters themselves, as happened with the proposals to sell off woodlands in England and Wales.
One thing that is stopping that is, in my view, that many people are mixing up the subject of SAR with Mountain Rescue. SAR exists as part of the UK’s maritime rescue obligations. That it can be tasked to assist mountain rescue efforts is fortunate, but it isn’t it’s primary role. The experience gained by the crews tasked to assist in these rescues cannot be quantified, and could never be recreated in training.
Mountain rescue is the remit of the police. It is their decision whether to ask the MRT’s to assist them. However I wonder what percentage of people who want Mountain Rescue ask for the police first? I think there is an ignorance amongst many people who confuse MR with SAR, and If the actions of some are the benchmark, they will ask for MR and expect to be picked up by chopper. Most years there will be a few stories in the press about people who go into the hills badly prepared for the journey they undertake, only to have to be rescued by MR, often supported by SAR services. Even worse are those who call up for the mountain rescue to come and get them off the hill because they are tired/ or late. On occasion, on being given instructions in how to get off the hill safely, some have been known to dig their heels in and refuse, expecting instead to be collected by helicopter, as if it is a big yellow taxi. Situations like this have led to some people, even within the outdoors community, calling for anyone who uses the hills to have mandatory insurance. I think this is a very dangerous road to go down. Who gets to define what qualifies for a free rescue and what doesn’t? Should people like farmers and gamekeepers, who often live and work in remote areas have to pay extra because in all likelihood if they suffer an accident it will not be an ambulance which comes to their aid but a helicopter? What about in winter when places normally reachable by road are cut off and SAR helicopters are sent to respond. Should they also have to pay extra premiums. I don’t believe they should. I haven’t even touched on rescue on water either, which opens up another can of worms. As it is a police matter, it is my view that should the MRT think the call out is unnecessary, the police should perhaps look at charging the individuals with wasting police time. But to ask all those responsible people who use the hills to have to insure themselves for rescue, while at the same time paying the tax which pays for that very service is just not acceptable. I wonder how people would react to the concept of privatising the ambulance service, or requiring that pedestrians all have insurance, as they sometimes cause accidents through carelessness or stupidity.
Another thing is that privatisation has never been the greatest success in this country. When private companies and shareholders become involved we have to ask, will corners be cut to maximise profits? Worse, what will happen if that company goes bust? No rescues while in administration? Virgin Search and Rescue? Or God forbid Easy Rescue! “Sorry sir, your rucksack is over the baggage allowance limit. Would you like to pay £50 to upgrade to our all inclusive rescue package, or will we just leave your bag on the mountain?”
We have an outstanding search and rescue helicopter service paid for through taxation. We are now being asked to accept a substitute service, still paid for by taxation, that many people, particularly within MRT and SAR itself, feel is off a lesser standard. That’s the real issue, and there’s a danger that in the confusion of the debate, that we lose sight of that, and the military SAR at the same time.