Search and rescue privatisation fears

THE future of a Suffolk-based RAF search and rescue team was thrown into doubt last night amid fears the service is to be privatised.Reports over the weekend suggest search and rescue teams at 12 bases - including Wattisham Airfield - will be sold off by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

By Jonathan Barnes

THE future of a Suffolk-based RAF search and rescue team was thrown into doubt last night amid fears the service is to be privatised.

Reports over the weekend suggest search and rescue teams at 12 bases - including Wattisham Airfield - will be sold off by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

It would see RAF, Royal Navy and Coastguard helicopters being replaced by civilian aircraft and crews.


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Two North American companies are believed to be in the running to secure a contract worth about £1bn when bids are sought next year, with the new contract coming into effect by 2012.

Last night, the MoD confirmed a major review of the service was ongoing. “We are currently considering the best ways of continuing to provide a top class search and rescue service and will be making an announcement shortly,” said a spokeswoman.

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The RAF's B Flight 22 squadron, which employs about 60 staff, has been based at Wattisham for nearly 12 years and has flown hundreds of rescue missions, saving countless lives.

Conservative MP David Ruffley, whose Bury St Edmunds constituency includes Wattisham, said: “I certainly don't think that crucial services like this should be privatised for ideological reasons - if any changes are likely to worsen the service they should be rejected.

“I will be writing to Defence Secretary John Reid this week to ask him to clarify his intentions regarding my constituents' jobs at Wattisham and also for assurances there will be no stealth cuts to the search and rescue service creeping in before 2012.”

No-one at B Flight 22 squadron was prepared to comment last night, but the MoD is believed to have accepted the decision because its Sea King helicopters, which first entered service in 1977, are reaching the end of their careers.

Instead, a private helicopter firm is likely to bring in American Sikorsky S-92s or French Super Pumas.

The move has lead to fears that privatisation could be extended to police helicopters and air ambulances - both of which operate in East Anglia.

B Flight 22 squadron moved to Wattisham Airfield in October 1994. It consists of about 20 air crew, 40 engineers and two Sea King helicopters.

Last year, crews were called to 131 emergencies, the majority of which involved civilians in trouble, including climbers stuck in poor weather in the Lake District and a father and son to safety clinging to a sinking boat in Essex.

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