Under fire, French navy defends handling of aircraft carrier virus outbreak

PARIS (Reuters) – The French military has defended its handling of the spread of the coronavirus aboard its flagship aircraft carrier, after more than a third of sailors tested positive for the disease.

Nearly 700 out of 1,767 sailors in the carrier group that includes the flagship Charles de Gaulle have so far tested positive for the virus, a total expected to rise when results are finalised from a third of the tests. Twenty crew members are in hospital, including one in intensive care.

The rapid spread of the disease on board the French ship has raised questions similar those that arose from an outbreak on board the U.S. carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which led to the firing of a captain who had called for more help, and the resignation of the navy secretary who sacked him.

Several French media outlets have quoted crew members saying there was tension on board the French carrier as the disease spread, after it stopped last month in the French Atlantic Ocean port of Brest and was sent back out to sea.

On Friday, the military denied one report – from a crew member interviewed by France Bleu radio – who said the captain had offered to halt the mission in Brest, but the ministry had ordered the ship to keep sailing.

After the stop in Brest, the ship remained at sea for several more weeks until returning to its Mediterranean home port, Toulon, two weeks ahead of schedule, with 40 sailors on board already showing signs of COVID-19.

“Officially, I deny this information. It is false,” Navy spokesman Eric Lavault told RTL radio late on Thursday, referring to the report that the military had rejected the captain’s offer to end the mission early in Brest.

“People have to understand that it is out of question to put in danger the crew. Without a crew, it is nothing,” he said.

“The command took all the protective measures and from the Brest stopover there were temperature checks twice a day and questionnaires to trace contacts. But this is not a cruise ship. It’s a warship that wages war against Islamic State,” he said.

Crew from the Charles de Gaulle, its planes and helicopters and the accompanying frigate Chevalier Paul are now in quarantine. The carrier is being disinfected.

France, the Western country with the most troops deployed on active mission abroad apart from the United States, has had to weigh the need to protect its soldiers and sailors from the disease against the desire to press on with missions. The army has already been forced to bring back some soldiers from operations in Africa after they tested positive for the virus.

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The military is investigating how the coronavirus arrived on board the carrier. Officials say the stopover in Brest, which took place in the days just before France went into lockdown, may have been to blame.

Sailors were allowed to meet their families on land and were seen in restaurants and cafes before returning to the ship, although an initial plan to allow families on board was scrapped. Fifty new sailors also boarded the ship.

“I think we have to be careful before speculating. There are several possibilities, but the stopover in Brest springs to mind,” Lauvaut said. Lavaut said a stopover in the Cypriot city of Limassol was also being investigated.

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