Unsafe Government travel putting lives at risk

‘I am so sorry! It’s inexcusable!’stammered the man from Downing Street down the mobile phone as he sat in the ambulance that was rushing my husband yet again to hospital.

X-rays would shortly show that Jon’s humerus, the bone that joins the elbow to the collar bone, had been shattered into five separate pieces.

He had been injured in an entirely preventable convoy accident while travelling with the Prime Minister to the Nato summit in Bucharest.

Yet again, Number 10 press officers had bundled him into a vehicle with insufficient seats and no seat belts with consequences that have become sickeningly familiar.

When the driver was forced to jam on the brakes, those standing were sent flying. Jon was hurled on to a pile of television equipment with Sky’s Adam Boulton, no featherweight, landing on top.

Two-and-a-half years earlier, Jon had shattered his left shoulder, broken his ribs and suffered concussion after another convoy accident, this time while accompanying Tony Blair to China. His injuries might well have been

prevented had there been accessible seat belts in the British Embassy car in which he was travelling.

We were assured at the time by no less a person than the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office, Sir Michael Jay, that this would never happen again, but within months of Jon returning to work, he was bundled into a vehicle with no accessible seat belts on a prime ministerial trip to New Zealand.

Widespread

These are not isolated incidents. Last summer, the press bus accompanying Gordon Brown to the United States narrowly escaped crashing when a civilian car blundered into the path of the convoy. Once again there were insufficient seats on board and Jon, barely recovered from the final operation to fix his shoulder, was perched precariously on a wheel arch.

It doesn’t just happen abroad. Here in the UK, Downing Street will repeatedly pack journalists into overcrowded vehicles. Colleagues will have their own stories to tell.

It is stunning bad luck that Jon has been hospitalised twice thanks to convoy accidents, yet there, but for the grace of God, go any of the journalists or officials on those trips.

It is beyond a joke. News organisations pay Downing Street substantial sums for transport for journalists accompanying the Prime Minister abroad. Downing Street therefore has a duty of care to ensure that the transport provided is safe.

Let us be clear. We are not talking about safety on prime ministerial trips to Iraq or Afghanistan – although the recent quality of those leave much to be desired. We are talking about basic health-and-safety procedures for convoys travelling to bog-standard summits abroad and to bog-standard engagements here in the UK.

It seems grimly obvious that the quality of Number 10’s advance reconnaissance planning for these trips, once regarded as Rolls-Royce, has declined sharply in recent years. It is also seems obvious that Downing Street’s press officers lack basic health-and-safety training.

Pressure

I can understand the difficulties faced by relatively junior Government officials under intense pressure from senior UK officials – not to mention officials from the host government to keep convoys to schedule and on time.

And let us be fair. Press officers can also be under huge pressure from journalists to get them from A to B as rapidly as possible. In Romania, the Sky News crew were anxious to get a tape to a satellite feed but, as they would be the first to admit, Gordon Brown’s thoughts on the resignation of Bertie Ahern are not worth hospitalising a colleague over.

None of these pressures, however, are new. What is new is the rate of serious injury.

If Downing Street does not raise its game, it will only be a matter of time before a journalist, or for that matter one of its own officials, is killed – not because of a terrorist attack or some terrible, unpreventable accident, but because of fundamental failings in basic safety procedures within Number 10 when it comes to arranging Government convoys.

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