Carmichael challenges ministers to ensure helicopter SAR review does not leave isles exposed

21 Mar 2024

Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has today challenged transport ministers to ensure that a review into potential changes to search and rescue helicopter services in the Northern Isles do not leave island communities “exposed”. Speaking in Transport Questions, Mr Carmichael noted “productive” discussions with operators but reiterated concerns about the need to focus on the nature of callouts rather than a purely quantitative metric.

Mr Carmichael previously led a debate in Parliament to raise local concerns about plans to change the Sumburgh helicopter response time from 15 minutes to a full hour, and secured agreement from ministers to review the proposals.

Speaking in the House, Mr Carmichael said:

“Can I thank ministers for facilitating discussions with the operators of the search and rescue helicopter service based in my constituency about the response times that have been proposed.

“These have been fairly productive so far, we await the outcome, but it is apparent already that these decisions are made solely on the number of calls and not the nature of the work that is undertaken. If that is conformed to the contract, can we ensure that future contracts don’t leave us exposed in this way?”

Responding for the government, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Roads and Local Transport Anthony Browne MP said:

“I know how important the helicopter search and rescue services are in Orkney and Shetland, so I know he has been a big campaigner for them, he has asked various questions here and held various debates.

“There is a review going on about the data used that is underway at the moment and will report in the summer, and we expect to publish it by the end of the year, and it should give the answers to the questions that he was asking.

“I should say we are investing £1bn in the SAR service and the number of bases will be going from ten to twelve overall. There will be no closure of bases, and there will be no change to the services in Orkney and Shetland before October 2026.”

Reacting after the exchange, Mr Carmichael said:

“The government has been engaging with these concerns and that is to the good, but promises that our services will not be cut before 2026 mean little if we are given no option to change course. The review that is underway must take into account not just the number but the nature of the callouts required in and around the isles.

“I look forward to seeing the results of this review but we cannot afford to be complacent. The successful campaign to retain the emergency tug in the isles previously shows that we have to fight hard to maintain the services we need – that is what I will be doing in the coming months.”

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