‘Biden would never ride a bus’: UK and US play down strict rules for Queen’s funeral

The British and US governments have played down suggestions that Joe Biden could be banned from using a helicopter and obliged to travel by bus when he and leaders from around the world congregate in London for the Queen’s funeral next week.

Speculation over the travel arrangements for foreign dignitaries expected to attend the service next Monday intensified on Sunday after government documents emerged saying foreign heads of state would have to ride en masse in a bus to Westminster Abbey rather than using private cars.

The guidance, seen by the Guardian and first reported by Politico, set out strict rules for the dozens of presidents, kings, queens and prime ministers expected to attend the funeral, urging them to travel by commercial flights to avoid putting too much strain on London’s airports.

The protocol message also said international guests must keep their delegations as small as possible, and that funeral invitations were limited ideally to the head of state and their spouse.

Like his predecessors, Biden – who confirmed his attendance over the weekend – usually gets about on foreign trips by helicopter and in the heavily armoured presidential car known as the Beast.

Joe Biden travelling in the presidential limousine, known as the Beast. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Asked about the reports on Monday, the spokesperson for the new British prime minister, Liz Truss, stressed the “arrangements for different leaders will vary”, and said the documents in question were simply for guidance.

A senior US official said the White House had received the generic invitation letter, limiting attendance to the head of state and their spouse.

The White House spokesperson, Karine Jean-Pierre, also told reporters that the invitation had been extended only to the president and the first lady.

Asked whether Biden would bring any former US presidents with him – were he allowed to do so – Jean-Pierre said any such decision would be taken by the British government.

“They decide who gets invited,” she said. “Again, the invite was for the president and the first lady only. It is for them to move to decide on how they’re going to proceed with invites, and they have.”

It is not clear how much Biden will be given special treatment. When the US president travels to London, Air Force One tends to use Stansted airport, as it causes too much disruption at Heathrow, though for Biden’s visit last year it used RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

According to Politico, one foreign ambassador based in London sent a WhatsApp message early on Sunday that read: “Can you imagine Joe Biden on the bus?”

Timothy Miller, a security specialist and former US secret service agent, was blunter still. “The bottom line is the president of the United States would never fly commercial and/or ride on a bus,” he said.

A tribute to Queen Elizabeth II on a bus stop in London. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

“There is a long history of his security being fully accommodated by host nations during these types of events. There is no ability for the secret service to compromise his security even for an event like this.”

Those joining Biden in confirming their attendance at the funeral include the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and their Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau.

On Monday, the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said he would be at the funeral, adding that he and the country’s president, Michael D Higgins, would also attend a memorial service for the Queen in Belfast on Tuesday.

King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain will go to the funeral, as will Felipe’s mother, Sofía, and his father, King Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014.

The Queen and Prince Philip pictured with King Felipe and Queen Letizia at Buckingham Palace in 2017. Photograph: Neil Hall/Press Association Images

Emperor Naruhito of Japan could attend, as could Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, is not expected to attend, while the Russian government said in a statement that Vladimir Putin’s presence at the funeral was “not being considered”.

Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has confirmed he will attend the funeral – a rare overseas outing for a president whose anti-democratic behaviour and destruction of the Amazon have made him an international pariah.

Reports in the Brazilian press suggest Bolsonaro views the funeral as a chance to project international respectability and prestige ahead of the country’s presidential election on 2 October, which polls indicate he is likely to lose.

“Sources close to the president say [the decision to attend] was influenced by the opportunity to record footage for his campaign propaganda,” the conservative Estado de São Paulo reported on Monday.

One presidential aide told the O Globo newspaper Bolsonaro saw the funeral as a chance to get one up on his leftist rival, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who would not be present.

“The circumstances are very favourable: [Bolsonaro] will appear as a head of state, surrounded by heads of state, while Lula will be left out,” the aide was quoted as saying. “It will reinforce the president’s image as a leader.”