Naval personnel’s key role in repatriating Britons in pandemic

The repatriation of more than 2,300 people during the COVID pandemic was assisted by specialist UK military teams who’ve completed the latest stage of their mission.

Britons and other nationalities were safely flown home from China, Cuba and Peru thanks in part to a small group of sailors, soldiers and RAF personnel.

Working side-by-side with Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, the Operational Liaison and Reconnaissance Teams – based at Northwood in Middlesex and on immediate notice to respond to world events – assisted the planning and successful evacuation of British and entitled foreign nationals from Wuhan, epicentre of the virus outbreak, as well as hundreds of cruise liner passengers from Havana and people stuck in Peru via Lima.

The military teams are drawn from Joint Force Headquarters which is UK Defence’s extremely high readiness crisis response unit and mobilised when there’s a major incident or disaster anywhere in the world – earthquakes, hurricanes (such as Dorian in the Bahamas), major terrorist attacks (the Easter 2019 bombings in Sri Lanka), evacuations in the face of war and now the pandemic.

The goal is to provide extra personnel on the ground to help British embassies and consuls, offer specialist military advice, and assist or remove entitled citizens from harm’s way as quickly and safely as possible.

Commander Rory West, a former Sea King helicopter observer (navigator/weapons and sensor specialist) and warfare officer, helped plan the first evacuation from Wuhan at the end of January and flew to China for the second repatriation flight a week later.

By then, the city was largely on lockdown.

“Wuhan was a ghost town – nothing looked as it should do and the only people we saw were at the airport and the feeling I got was that they were far more scared than we had assessed. There was a definite sense of fear,” the 50-year-old from Portsmouth said.

“But they were also determined. The city had adopted the chant of the local football team. ‘Go Wuhan’ was a sign you saw frequently.”

Some of the passengers were scared, some didn’t want to miss the flight as they feared there wouldn’t be any other opportunities. It was both heartening and sad. We got people out, but we also saw the airport staff who’d been so helpful watch people flying out of their city, and they were being left behind.

Cdr West

Once the specially-chartered 747 landed back in the UK all aboard were quarantined for two weeks in Milton Keynes.

Shortly afterwards, Cdr West was dispatched again – this time to Cuba to help get passengers and a couple of crew off the cruise ship MV Braemar, which had been refused entry to some ports already before Havana said it would accept the vessel.

“Medical supplies were running low, the majority of the passengers fell into the high-risk category in terms of their age bracket and concern was high that if the ship were to sail back to the UK – a journey of about two weeks – there would be serious problems on board, so repatriation flights were organised,” explained Army Major Stephanie Manning who was part of the military team dispatched to Havana.

Cuban authorities did much of the work to assist the evacuation and repatriation, working hand in glove with the British military, as four flights were laid on to fly passengers to the UK.

“I’ve been in the Navy for 31 years and this job has been completely different from any other – one of the best I have ever done. Hugely rewarding,” Cdr West said.

Everything we did, we knew it had an immediate effect. I feel very fortunate to have been part of it.

Cdr West believes the “cool heads in a difficult situation” provided by the military teams not only proved vital in bringing people home, but in forging stronger ties between UK and China/Cuba.

 “Our assistance has hopefully helped the UK’s relations with China and Cuba. It shouldn’t end with the pandemic. The links we made should have an important diplomatic role as well,” he added.

“We have really good training – we have to be as we’re ready to respond at all times. That’s our hashtag: always ready.”