HMS Queen Elizabeth prepares to sail despite COVID-19 crisis

(UPDATED) HMS Queen Elizabeth will leave Portsmouth for another period of training next week but it was announced on 23rd April that her departure will be delayed by a few days while the entire ship’s company is tested for COVID-19. At a time when aircraft carriers in other navies have experienced widespread infection amongst their crews, we look at the rationale for sailing and the measures taken by the RN to mitigate risks to its personnel.

QNLZ is about to undergo another phase of Operational Sea Training which is primarily about ensuring the crew is safe to operate and fight the ship, rather than aircraft operations. Regular sea training is needed to keep the ship’s company at peak performance and to maintain an effective team as new personnel join the ship. This is the first time the ship will be assessed by FOST staff and an important foundational step before she participates as the centrepiece of exercise Crimson Ocean. This will be held in UK waters and the Eastern Atlantic and will be an operationally focussed exercise. UK-owned F-35s will continue to develop their carrier aviation and warfare skills and build on the initial work done during 2019.

Painful lessons

A serious outbreak of infection onboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt serving in the US Pacific Fleet resulted in the Captain, desperate to protect his crew, being sacked for going outside the chain of command to request help. To compound this leadership debacle, the Secretary of the Navy subsequently resigned for his mishandling of the incident. The ship is now stuck in Guam with 700 crew members having tested positive, eight hospitalised and suffering one fatality. More than 1,000 sailors on the French carrier, FS Charles de Gaulle, have now tested positive for the virus and the ship was forced to break off from operations in the Atlantic and return to Toulon.

Other vessels in navies across the world have been affected but these two high profile cases demonstrate how the pandemic could have potentially strategic impacts to the naval balance of power. The USS Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, which recently returned from time in the Arabian Gulf, is to remain at sea to avoid risk to her crew. In the case of the Roosevelt and the De Gaulle, both ships had been at sea sometime before the seriousness and infectious nature of COVID-19 had been fully appreciated (except perhaps in China) and were unable to take precautions until too late.

Mission v risk

Despite the pandemic affecting nearly every nation on the planet, sadly there seems to be little sign it will bring humanity together or at least see any temporary let-up in great power competition. A substantial Russian task group sailed transited the North Sea and Channel in late March and were shadowed in a NATO operation including at least 7 RN vessels while at the same time long-range Russian aircraft came close to UK airspace. The Russians also continue to conduct missile firings and there has been a reported surge in their submarine activity in the Atlantic. Iranian gunboats seized a Hong Kong-flagged tanker on April 14 and 11 IRGC gunboats harassed and made dangerous approaches to American ships in the Northern Arabian Gulf last week. China continues to conduct military exercises close to Taiwan and a Chinese Coastguard vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea in early April.

Against this background, the UK and its allies are committed to maintaining their military posture. For the RN scaling back, operations and training would not only send the wrong signals to potential adversaries but have a knock-on effect on future capability. Some training might appear routine and non-essential but if suspended would start to leave gaps which may take a disproportionate time to rectify at a later date. Although the Fleet is very flexible, there is a large element of long-term planning for when and where ships, submarines, people and aircraft will be deployed. Of particular significance in the schedule is achieving Initial Operating Capability and the first deployment of the carrier strike group in May 2021.

HMS Queen Elizabeth at anchor during initial sea training off Plymouth, June 2019. The RN’s rigorous training and certification of crews in basics such as fire-fighting and damage control is world-renowned. It is not especially enjoyable for the ship’s company at the time but ultimately makes for a cohesive team that will react well in combat or an emergency (Photos: Andy Amor).

All reasonable measures

As greater testing capacity is becoming available nationwide, on 23 April it was decided that the whole crew would be tested before deploying. The ship’s planned departure on 28th April will be delayed by a few days but this is a sensible precaution which should reduce risks further. A repeat of what has happened to foreign warships onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth would be seen as a major own goal for the RN and the belated decision to carry out testing will be welcomed by all.

Physical space and the nature of the life at sea means it is not possible to maintain full social distancing on a ship but it should be remembered that there are many other essential workplaces ashore that have no choice but to continue to function. QNLZ will be sailing with her core crew which numbers around 750 but the ship has a total of 1,400 bunks, to accommodate the air group, Marines and various specialists. This surplus has allowed for a reduction in the average number of people in each sleeping pace. The accommodation arrangements on board the QEC are generally much more comfortable and spacious than that found on board the US and French carriers of a much older design. Although larger, the US aircraft carrier’s crew is also more than 4 times that of the QEC. With such a low manpower density, HMS Queen Elizabeth is probably amongst the best-placed warships afloat to practice social distancing.

Although some distancing onboard may be possible, it is clear that ships are places where viruses spread quickly and QNLZ sailors are still potentially vulnerable. In preparation for sailing the crew have either been isolated by living onboard already for some weeks or at home with families until sailing and practising the same contact minimisation principles as the rest of the population. This very much reduces the chances of someone coming on board with an infection. Contractors working on the ship preparing her to sail are also on split shifts and reduced hours to minimise contact between people. The air group personnel and other staff joining the ship later will have been self-isolated for at least two weeks prior to ensure the ship remains virus-free.

The RN has always maintained high standards on cleanliness on its vessels but hygiene is clearly especially important at present. All personnel will be directed and assured by line management to have washed hands when arriving on watch and before dining. There will be extra hygienic cleaning of wholeship areas and daily cleaning of the main stairwells. While the ship is alongside, hand sanitizer on the gangways is mandatory for all personnel to use.

The Secretary of State for Defence has given full authority to captains of warships to return to port at any time should there be an outbreak on board. He has spoken personally to Captain Essenhigh, CO of HMS Queen Elizabeth and told him “we will not judge you if you feel the need to come home” while on deployment. The First Sea Lord has also had to provide a detailed justification in writing as to why QNLZ is going to sea.

The Ministry of Defence has offered very limited comment about the testing of forces personnel for COVID-19 although last week they stated that there had been “less than 100” confirmed cases. Outputs are being affected in some areas with a total of 13,000 members of the Armed Forces in isolation after they or their relatives displayed symptoms. The RN will not comment on cases amongst sailors but appears to have escaped very lightly and the fleet is continuing with almost normal operating patterns. In mid-March, there were about 20 confirmed cases at Faslane and subsequently, the base has gone into a very tight lockdown with submariners in strict isolation before patrols.

This is clearly a stressful time for many people across the nation and this is true for forces personnel and their families. However, they have risen to the occasion and Operation Rescript, the military effort to assist the government in responding to COVID-19, has seen 2,680 personnel deployed from a total of 23,000 on standby. The RN is the main contributor to Operation Broadshare, the UK forces effort to assist British Overseas Territories.

The decision to test the crew shows that the Navy’s duty of care for its people is being taken very seriously. With all the pubs shut and life ashore pretty constrained, if you are on a clean ship then being at sea looks more attractive than usual right now.