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Emergency services / Government minister suggests proposed coastguard response times could be changed

It comes after Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael raised the matter in parliament

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has pressed the government in parliament on plans to increase the response time for the Sumburgh based coastguard helicopter – asking for the MCA to scrap the proposals and start again with a “blank sheet”.

But minister for roads and local transport Guy Opperman, representing the UK Government, revealed that analysis is being undertaken on demand for the search and rescue service, which could potentially see the plans amended.

Opperman highlighted how the next search and rescue contract, the UKSAR2G programme, was procured during the pandemic and suggested incident numbers may have been less in the last few years than they would be in the future.

He said the analysis will look at incident data from after the procurement commenced.

But Carmichael said the situation was not just about demand – with Shetland’s location and weather constraints key factors.

It emerged earlier this year that the “readiness state” for the Sumburgh based helicopter is in line to increase from 15 minutes during the day to 60 minutes from October 2026.

Guy Opperman MP during a visit to Shetland earlier this year. Photo: UK Government

Carmichael said “this is a change that could potentially put lives at risk”.

And he claimed that the contract for the change has already been signed, despite the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) saying discussions are ongoing.

Carmichael also spoke about the important role the coastguard helicopter plays not just in search and rescue but also in supporting air ambulance operations.

He encouraged the government to start again on the proposals, which he said were dangerous and have not been handled well.

“Let’s have another go and this time, let’s get it right,” the MP said.

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Opperman said he accepted that services like the coastguard “matter tremendously” to island and coastal communities.

He confirmed that analysis is underway that will take a closer look at demand on the service.

The MP said the contract terms of the next search and rescue service will allow for a review against changes in demand.

Opperman added that should the analysis indicate that amendments to the new service are required, then the UK Government’s Department for Transport can pursue these by contractual mechanisms.

He said the outcome of the review will be made known next year.

In a statement released prior to the Westminster meeting, a Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesperson said: “The readiness state of the helicopter based at Shetland is 15 minutes in the day and 45 minutes at night.

“This state of readiness will continue through the next three years until October 2026.

“Discussions relating to readiness states beyond this date are ongoing.”

Speaking after the debate, Carmichael said: “I am glad that the minister was willing to engage positively – we need to see this followed up in results.

“Clearly the data that has been used to start this process has not been adequate and I am glad the minister seemed to accept this.

“What is needed now is a reset in the future planning for the helicopter service. That has to include proper engagement from the MCA and ministers with the local communities affected – fishermen, the oil and gas industry, ferry providers, shipping and others.

“Trust has been seriously affected by this saga and so the MCA will have to step up its game and show that it takes risk assessments and community engagement seriously.

“There has got to be a recognition that this is not a simple question of how many callouts there are per year, but the nature of those callouts, the weather and sea conditions and the distances and scope of area involved.

“Right this moment the north boat is cancelled for two days due to the severity of the weather. That alone ought to be a reminder of the nature of this service – we cut it at our peril.”

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