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July 13, 2020

How HMS Queen Elizabeth avoided a Covid-19 outbreak

From pre-deployment testing and isolation to social distancing where possible on board, the Royal Navy’s recent trials of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier are a success story of how to deploy on operations while preventing a shipboard outbreak.

By Harry Lye

HMS Queen Elizabeth recently returned to Portsmouth from trials that saw her pass certification approving her for Carrier Strike missions. During this time the ship was joined by F-35s from the RAF’s 617 Squadron and numerous other vessels from the Royal Navy, all while preventing a coronavirus outbreak on board through a model that the navy could follow future deployments.

On the ship’s return to Portsmouth on the 2 July, Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey said: “HMS Queen Elizabeth is an extraordinary ship crewed by extraordinary people from both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

“They deployed at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak and have remained at sea for over ten weeks so that they could complete their operational training with the minimal risk of infection.

“They’ve put their duty to our country ahead of spending time with their families during the pandemic and in the process, they’ve taken us a step closer to, once again, having a carrier strike capability with the capacity to project British influence across the globe.”

Pre-deployment, the sailing of the ship came under increasing scrutiny following two outbreaks on aircraft carriers that questioned whether navies were ready to effectively manage outbreaks of the pandemic aboard ships.

The US Navy’s USS Theodore Roosevelt saw an outbreak that led to the death of one sailor, the firing of the ship’s commanding officer, and ultimately the resignation of the Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.

The French Marine Nationale saw an outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle forcing the ship to return to its homeport of Toulon early.

Ahead of the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s sailing Operational Sea Training in April, Naval Technology reported that the entire ship’s crew would be tested for Covid-19 before embarking and that the ship would stay close to port for two weeks’ isolation at sea before beginning training.

This was part of an extended ‘bubble’ placed around the ship and anyone who would later embark to try and maintain a Covid-19-free zone around the vessel, crew and support staff. Ahead of the deployment the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also permitted the ship’s commanding officer to return to port if it was felt that the crew were in danger.

In the creation of the Covid-19 free bubble, all personnel from the Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST), Carrier Strike Group and Royal Air Force 617Sqn were tested before departing or joining the ship at sea.

Anyone who joined the ship while it was underway had to have a negative test for Covid-19 and self-isolate for two weeks before embarking.

During the ship’s two-week isolation at sea, Naval Technology understands that where practicable social distancing was enforced and an enhanced cleaning regime was put in place. After the two weeks, social distancing guidelines are understood to have been relaxed while more intense cleaning regimes were maintained for the entire deployment.

The Royal Navy is expected to apply lessons learned from the successful Covid-19-free deployment to future deployments, where circumstances allow

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