By Pierre Tran
Paris – Armed forces minister Florence Parly denied April 17 media reports the captain of the Charles de Gaulle had asked for an early return to base to limit the spread of coronavirus on board the aircraft carrier.
“It has been said the captain wanted to break off the carrier task force mission at the stop over at Brest,” she said in a video meeting with the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly.
“This rumor is false,” she said. “The captain has, himself, confirmed that and the navy spokesman clearly denied that yesterday.”
The minister delivered her public rebuttal following a report from France Bleu local radio which said the captain had asked to sail the carrier back to the Toulon home base due to concern over Covid 19, and the ministry had rejected that request.
France Bleu had reported an account given by a sailor who had been on the carrier and had contracted the coronavirus.
Tests for coronavirus showed 1,081 sailors had contracted the infection, with 545 sailors showing symptoms and kept under close medical supervision, Parly said.
Twenty four sailors have been admitted to a Toulon military hospital, with one in intensive care, she said.
“Our thoughts are particularly with them,” she said.
There were 1,760 sailors and personnel on board when the Charles de Gaulle sailed January 21 out of Toulon.
The carrier had been at the dockside March 13-16 at Brest naval base and had visited Cyprus in February, Parly said. The navy had approved the stop over for reasons of logistics and well being of the crew, who had worked hard.
That stop over at Brest took place before the national lock down went into effect, she said. It is not known whether the virus was already on board before the visit to Brest.
“Could the captain measure the shadow of the pandemic at that time?” she said.
“Command is difficult,” she said. Knowledge of the virus was more limited then compared to what is known today, she added.
France entered the lock down at midday March 17, with the strict conditions of national confinement extended to May 11.
After leaving Brest, the carrier task force went on to sail in allied exercises in the North Atlantic and the North sea, before curtailing the mission and returning to Toulon on April 12. Some sailors had shown signs they might have caught the infection, prompting emergency medical tests April 8 on board the carrier.
The tests showed 50 sailors had caught the virus, prompting a recall of the carrier task force, which included two frigates and a fleet auxiliary tanker.
There are now two enquiries on what happened on the carrier, with a medical team looking to trace how the coronavirus got on board and a command enquiry to learn lessons on how the officers managed the situation once the virus had hit the crew.
Some 30 percent of the warships in the carrier task force have been cleaned, Parly said. The carrier had previously been due to return April 24.
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