Westminster completes epic pandemic mission

Frigate HMS Westminster has returned to Portsmouth after a 110-day mission largely cut off from human contact.

The warship clocked up 17,500 nautical miles on operations in and around UK waters under strict infection prevention measures, most recently as part of a NATO group monitoring nine Russian warships near UK waters.

The frigate has also taken part in exercises with other Royal Navy units, the RAF and NATO allies and conducted a significant period of deck landing training for 825 Naval Air Squadron – allowing the qualification of three Wildcat pilots, with nobody allowed out of the helicopters to avoid any risk of Covid-19 transmission

Indeed, for two weeks before departure on May 1 the crew self-isolated. With nearly all scheduled port visits cancelled, which would have provided some respite from the demanding programme, the crew had to keep morale and motivation high.

The ship could not risk losing any timetabled activities to Covid-19, so there was a closed gangway for almost the entire time she has been deployed. A fenced-off area on a jetty to exercise during routine logistics stops was as much dry land any of the crew trod for weeks at a time.

HMS Westminster’s Executive Officer, Lt Cdr David Armstrong, said: “It’s been a really successful deployment and we’re pretty proud of it. We were asked by Fleet to do our bit during this time of national Covid struggle so we’ve been doing our job but doing it in a slightly unique way and making sure that we are definitely available should there be any operational tasking required.

“To achieve that, in late April we closed ourselves off from the rest of the country, held our breath for two weeks as we worked out whether we were infection-free and from the moment we discovered we were, we were available to Fleet with no worry that we would need to bring ourselves alongside with infection. We then jealously guarded that status.”

Thanks to a very low number of Covid-19 cases in Iceland, Reykjavik was the only survivor amongst the planned port visits at the end of NATO anti-submarine warfare exercise Dynamic Mongoose.

But with only those three days of open gangway during 110 deployed, it provided the crew with additional challenges.

Lt Cdr Armstrong said: “Effectively we’ve been stuck on board as a ship’s company for 110 days. No one’s gone home and we haven’t seen our friends and family for that length of time, which is unusual, and the extra stress of Covid-19 has made it a more challenging.

“Keeping the ship’s company collegiate when no one gets the opportunity to step ashore and take any respite has been a challenge. Our physical trainer has been busy, along with the wider executive team, creating our own sort of entertainment – whether that’s running a charity triathlon on board, a whole-ship pizza night, quizzes or whole-ship film nights – anything and everything which can alleviate the boredom and give people the sense of ‘downtime’ has been really important.”

HMS Westminster now moves into a period of planned maintenance at Portsmouth, plus some well-earned leave for the crew.