LONDON — Britain’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth departed its Portsmouth base April 29 for training, but only after its crew was tested for the new coronavirus, the Royal Navy announced.
The 65,000-ton warship is currently in an isolation period at sea ahead of training off the south coast of England.
The ship’s departure from the Portsmouth naval base was delayed by a few days to enable the entire crew of about 800 to be tested for COVID-19.
The warship is expected to be at sea for up to eight weeks conducting the Flag Officer Sea Training assessment required to certify that HMS Queen Elizabeth is competent to join the fleet for operational tasking. Britain is targeting next year for the ship’s first operational deployment, and the FOST assessment is a key element in achieving that plan.
Training with F-35 fighter jets, simulated battle damage, fires and flood training, and mission rehearsals will be part of the process, the Royal Navy said in a statement. “This will prepare the ship for further training later in the year with other Royal Navy ships to ensure they are ready to deploy as a task group next year,” the service said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in the U.K., and the recent impact that the virus has had on French and U.S. naval crews and operations, the British warship was only allowed to go to sea after the head of the Royal Navy wrote to the defense secretary, Ben Wallace, explaining why it was necessary.
“The continuation of this training has been agreed by senior leaders across defence,” the Royal Navy said in announcing the departure.
Speaking to the parliamentary Defence Committee on April 22, Wallace said he was anxious not to repeat the experiences of the U.S. and France.
“We do not [want to] get into what we saw happening in America and France. I have been very clear that the captains of our ships have my full authority, should they have an outbreak and feel that the best course of action is to return to port, or come alongside, or to evacuate, that they have that authority to do so. I will not force them to go to sea with an infected crew,” Wallace told the committee.
“I have spoken to the captain [of HMS Queen Elizabeth] directly, saying: ‘We will not judge you, we will not think worse of you, if, when at sea, you feel the need to come back because of a crew outbreak or something,’ " the defense secretary added. "It is going to be in U.K. waters, the ship, so it will not be very far away; she will be within helicopter distance if we need to get someone back.”
Wallace told the Defence Committee that along with well-tried, traditional isolation rules that ships have always had, the Royal Navy is “in a place where we can look after welfare while maintaining some of our defense operations that we have to do."