Royal Navy: One in five sailors on UK carrier strike group have been infected with Covid-19

MORE than one-in-five UK personnel deployed on the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group have been infected with Covid-19 since the task force set sail in May, The News can exclusively today reveal.

Tuesday, 26th October 2021, 4:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th October 2021, 4:11 pm

A total of 710 people out of more than 3,000 British military staff on the mission to the Far East have been infected with coronavirus in the five months the flotilla has been at sea.

Much of the task force, led by aircraft carrier and British flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, is currently in India on the latest pitstop of its tour to the Indo-Pacific region.

However, warships have been blighted by several outbreaks following shore visits by naval personnel, resulting in some vessels being placed on temporary quarantine.

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Pictured: The full UK carrier strike group made up of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, leading a flotilla of destroyers and frigates from the UK, US and the Netherlands, together with two Royal Fleet Auxiliaries. It is the most powerful task force assembled by any European Navy in almost 20 years.

The Royal Navy has downplayed the issue and insisted the number of infections had had a ‘negligible impact’ on operations, with all personnel double-vaccinated against Covid-19.

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However, the news has worried Labour’s shadow armed forces minister, Stephen Morgan.

The Portsmouth South MP said: ‘These figures are concerning. Whilst there will of course be logistical challenges in managing Covid-19 infections when personnel are away at sea, it cannot be right that they are this much higher compared to the levels we are seeing back in Britain.

Ben Wallace leaves Number 10, Downing Street after being appointed secretary of state for defence in July 2019 (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

‘It’s vital that our armed forces are given the proper protections and support that is needed to keep them safe, which allows them to deliver the incredible work they do, but government is letting them down.

‘Ministers must get a grip of this quickly to ensure this does not impact future operational capabilities and that we are protecting our servicemen and women.’

A former First Sea Lord has since urged naval families to remain calm and to not ‘overreact’ at the news.

Speaking to The News, Admiral Lord Alan West – who led the navy between 2002 and 2006 – said: ‘I think we have been quite careful about these things, we shouldn’t overreact.

Pictured: An F-35B jet lands back on HMS Queen Elizabeth whilst she conducts a double replenishment with RFA Tidespring and HNLMS Evertsen.

‘These people have all been vaccinated. They’re not going to need to be placed on ventilators or to be hospitalised. That’s the reality.

‘The navy’s response, saying it’s not affecting operations, is right; it’s like having a cold – we just have to get on with business.

‘Of course we should take care and try to avoid infections. But if there are infections I’m sure the navy and naval doctors will be monitoring it fairly closely. It’s a case of “keep calm and carry on”.’

In July a large-scale outbreak hit HMS Queen Elizabeth, with more than 100 crew members infected with the virus.

As well as the 100 personnel on the carrier, a number of crew members on four accompanying British ships also caught Covid-19.

The first cases were identified on around July 4, with sailors having become infected when they went ashore during a stopover at Limassol in Cyprus.

Speaking at the time, defence secretary Ben Wallace said an outbreak was ‘inevitable’ for a group of vessels on a global, months-long voyage.

Mr Wallace said new infections had been slowing and that the strike group’s maiden voyage was being kept under review.

He added: ‘It is inevitable at some stage in these eight-nine months of deployment that somebody would contract coronavirus…To expect it not to happen would actually be far more deluded.’

The latest Covid infection numbers were revealed by Tory defence minister Baroness Annabel Goldie during a parliamentary response to Labour shadow defence minister Lord Tunnicliffe.

She said: ‘As of October 15 2021, 710 UK armed forces personnel were reported as having tested positive to Covid-19 since the UK carrier strike group deployed in May 2021.’

Cabinet minister and Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt said the navy ‘must ensure all is being done to stop infections and ensure the impact of Covid-19 is reduced’.

The Senior Service said outbreaks on ships have been managed on a case-by-case basis and that it had been ‘necessary to cancel’ some events planned to ‘protect visitors from possible infection’.

A Royal Navy spokeswoman said: ‘The carrier strike group left the UK with a clean bill of health, only confirming the first Covid cases following a port call.

‘The Covid rates across the group are not dissimilar to the UK civilian rates and there has been negligible impact on the deployment.

‘All ships in the group have been rigidly following the government guidelines throughout the deployment to good effect and that’s one of the factors enabling the low transmission rate on close-quartered warships.’

Last week the UK recorded more than 52,000 new daily cases of Covid-19, the highest figure since July.

Latest data from the Office of National Statistics revealed that one in 55 people in England were estimated to be infected with the virus.

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