On top of testing all crew, the vessel will also spend the first two weeks of training in aircraft range of Portsmouth before sailing for further trials to be doubly sure that the crew is safe.
The Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace also publicly gave his backing to the ship’s commanding officer to return the vessel back to its homeport if necessary. Speaking at a Defence Select Committee hearing, Wallace said the captain would not be questioned if the choice was made to end the training early.
Questions were raised about how essential the training is after outbreaks on two other aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and French Navy flagship Charles de Gaulle, highlighted the challenge of containing an outbreak at sea. However, the Navy said it believes with all the measures announced the sailing of HMS Queen Elizabeth will be as safe as possible.
A Royal Navy spokesperson told Naval Technology: “The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has put in place plans to ensure the delivery of its key operations in the UK and overseas where appropriate.
“In addition to an isolation period at sea, the Royal Navy is now making use of spare NHS testing capacity to test the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth prior to sailing. This will necessitate a short but manageable delay in sailing.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Royal Navy issued a goal of achieving initial operating capability (IOC) for carrier strike in December 2020. To meet this goal, the Royal Navy has two small windows to complete essential training. The first window begins next week, when the ship will complete operational sea training. During this time the crew will train for combat and operations, as well as completing carrier certification for some F-35 pilots.
Later in the year, the ship will complete its last round of training before Exercise Joint Warrior, which is expected to see the ship again embark with pilots and F-35s from the US Marine Corps as the final step before confirming IOC in 2021.
Despite IOC not being scheduled until later in the year, the two training periods have to fit around a scheduled maintenance period for the ship, the schedules of international partners, and other ships in the Royal Navy that will make up a deployable carrier strike group in 2021.
The timeframe for meeting training requirements is narrow, and so pushing back one operation would potentially set IOC back much further.
The Royal Navy spokesperson added: “HMS Queen Elizabeth is sailing to conduct Operational Sea Training, required as preparation for further training later this year and which together will ensure that she is ready for deployment in 2021. The continuation of this training has been agreed by senior leaders across Defence. She will be operating in waters close to the UK coast and the Commanding Officer has the discretion to cease the training, if deemed necessary.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth has a key role to play in the Defence of the United Kingdom and the Royal Navy will continue to conduct essential training ashore and at sea in order to fulfil its critical outputs now and in the future.”
The navy added that the announced precautions were the ‘right and sensible thing to do to ensure the Navy can continue to deliver on operations now and in the future’.
Once tested for coronavirus, sailors will embark on the ship and not leave, essentially beginning a 14-day safeguarding period to prevent contamination of the ship after testing. Once the ship has sailed, all personnel embarking via aircraft or other vessels will have to undergo a 14-day period of isolation to ensure they do not bring the virus onboard with them.