‘School trip energy’: World leaders take bus to Queen’s funeral as Joe Biden arrives in armoured limousine

Coaches have been used for security reasons in the biggest protective operation ever carried out by British police

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Monday 19 September 2022 14:05 BST
Joe and Jill Biden arrive at Westminster Abbey for Queen's funeral
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The use of coaches and minibuses to transport world leaders and international royalty to the Queen’s funeral and official events has been compared to a “school trip”.

Some heads of state, including the presidents of Kenya and Tanzania, posed for photos together on transport assigned by British authorities.

Buses were used to ferry dignitaries to a reception with the new King at Buckingham Palace on Sunday, as well as to the grand state funeral on Monday.

Foreign governments were instructed to leave their cars at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which was a staging point for the transport operation on Monday, while US president Joe Biden was allowed to use the presidential armoured limousine known as The Beast.

Police closed down access to the roads surrounding the hospital as world leaders piled on the buses early on Monday morning.

Those taking the group transport included Irish taoiseach Micheal Martin, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Italian president Sergio Mattarella - who arrived at the security cordon in a Maserati.

Also taking the bus were members of European royalty, including King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain and King Philippe of Belgium, and China’s official delegation.

The car carrying the Emir of Qatar was forced to wait in front of television cameras for 20 minutes at the checkpoint before being allowed to enter.

From the Royal Hospital, a succession of coaches took the foreign dignitaries along the banks of the Thames to Westminster Abbey and the Queen's funeral.

Why were buses used?

Ultimately, for security reasons. An official communication concerning transport arrangements from the British Foreign Office to other governments stated that representatives would be escorted to the Queen’s funeral on coaches from a location in west London, where they would be required to leave their cars “because of tight security and road restrictions”.

“Multiple and comprehensive layers of security will be in place across London and at all the official venues used for the state funeral and associated events,” said a document obtained byPolitico.

Speaking on Friday, Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Stuart Cundy said the funeral was the “largest global protection operation we’ve ever undertaken”.

“Specialist officers from the Met and other forces, working with FCDO and many other organisations, are well versed with engaging with world leaders and their own protection teams from wherever they come from,” he added.

“We need to make sure this is a safe and secure event.”

Guests wait to board a bus outside Westminster Abbey after the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II
Guests wait to board a bus outside Westminster Abbey after the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II (Getty Images)

Why are cars a security issue?

The UK is responsible for the safety of foreign dignitaries visiting the country, and the Queen’s funeral is the biggest security operation ever mounted in the country.

Bodyguards brought to the UK by foreign dignitaries are not allowed to carry guns unless there are exceptional circumstances, meaning British police are responsible for any armed protection duties.

Events around the Queen’s funeral were assessed to be a significant target for potential terror attacks and disruptive protests, with dense crowds lining roads leading to Westminster Abbey.

That meant that dignitaries attending were assigned a high level of security, but the finite number of armed officers and specialists able to guard them could not be stretched between dozens of cars moving through London.

Nick Aldworth, who led the “protect and prepare” strand of national counter-terrorism policing until his retirement in May 2019, said buses were used to transport world leaders at the London 2012 Olympics for the same reasons.

“We ran out of protection officers and had to implement mutual aid to bring in pretty much every armed officer in the country,” he told The Independent.

“We put groups of people on coaches and minibuses, because you need a smaller number of armed officers to protect them.”

Simon Morgan, a former Metropolitan Police royal protection officer, said British police have “primacy” for protective operations because of the laws in place.

“Any foreign protection team coming into the UK fully understands the rules they have to play with, as it is when we go to their country,” he added.

Crowd watches Queen's coffin procession outside Westminster

Why didn’t the US president have to get the bus?

The UK’s Foreign Office communicated with other nations about logistical arrangements and took representations, which is the standard protocol for all state visits.

An official body called the Executive Committee for the Protection of Royalty and Public Figures (Ravec) then decides which world leaders are assigned protection and the Metropolitan Police delivers operations accordingly.

It is understood that as US president, the security risks to Mr Biden are judged to be higher than those for other leaders, meaning he was permitted to travel with a security team in his armoured vehicle rather than being put on a coach.

Mr Morgan said that all security arrangements have to be “proportionate and necessary”.

Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden wave to the crowd from 'The Beast' as they leave Westminster Hall after paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II
Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden wave to the crowd from 'The Beast' as they leave Westminster Hall after paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II (Getty Images)

What do world leaders think of the buses?

There were reports that some nations found the arrangements “undignified”, while photos posted on social media showed other world leaders smiling as they sat together on the way to the Queen’s funeral.

Commentators on social media said the photos had “school trip energy”, with many questioning the different treatment afforded to the US president.

Asked how she felt about getting the bus during a BBC interview, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said: “I don’t think the bus warrants too much fuss. When we came here for Chogm [the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] we used buses for transport, back in New Zealand I often get our ministers to carpool in a van. This just makes good sense.”

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