The previous Government had announced plans to privatise the whole of the SAR and after a brief suspension of these plans, the new coalition Government decided to go ahead with the privatisation. This covers the helicopters used to search for lost and injured walkers and climbers in Scotland. The plans do not affect the Mountain Rescue Service which will continue as a voluntary service, although Mountain Rescue Teams work in close cooperation with the SAR, and the Government has said that the service will remain free to use.
Search and rescue operations were to be transferred from HMS Gannet at Prestwick to Glasgow under a new multi-billion pound deal to move all SAR services to the private sector. The search and rescue service based in Stornaway has been run under such a private scheme for sometime. A new service would combine the current work of the RAF, navy and coastguard.
A private consortium won the bid, Soteria, included the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). However it is now understood that RBS has pulled out of the deal, allegedly because details of the plans have been leaked to the media. It was planned that Soteria would take over the service from 2012 with the new service being based near Bristol and to be jointly managed by the Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. However these plans now look uncertain.
If the privatisation goes ahead it will reduce the number of helicopters from 38 across the UK, to possibly as few as 24. The familiar Sea Kings will be replaced by faster and larger Sikorskys which the Government says will provide a better service.
In Scotland there are particular concerns about the future of HMS Gannet which currently operates the SAR for the southern and some western parts of the country. At the time the deal was announced, defence Minister Quentin Davies told BBC Scotland that under the £6bn deal, helicopters will not fly from the Prestwick base but will instead fly from Glasgow Airport. Local MP, Brian Donohoe said, “It will mean the end of Gannet because search and rescue is 90% of what it does.” Over 100 crew and other staff are based at Prestwick and Mr Donohoe said he would fight the plans.