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Navy completes 10,000-mile Covid vaccine dash to remote Atlantic island

HMS Forth delivers the vaccine to Edinburgh of the Seven Seas in Tristan
29 April 2021
The Royal Navy delivered vaccines to one of the most remote community in the world after a race against time in the South Atlantic.

HMS Forth landed doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine on Tristan da Cunha after a 2,500-mile journey from the Falklands to beat winter storms.

With no airport and no ships able to offload on the island during the austral winter, the 200-plus inhabitants of the British Overseas Territory are cut off from the world for months on end.

Forth, crewed by Portsmouth-based sailors and the Royal Navy’s permanent presence in the Falklands, acted as the last ‘baton carrier’ in a 10,000-mile race to get the vaccine to islanders.

The Royal Air Force delivered the vaccine from RAF Brize Norton to Mount Pleasant in the Falklands.

Within an hour, the tiny phials were safely stored in Forth’s sickbay and the ship was leaving her base to sail across the ocean.

The mission, on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, proved to be a challenge for Forth with the 5,000-mile round trip close to the limit of the patrol ship’s fuel endurance.

With no opportunity to refuel en route, the voyage had to be cleverly planned to avoid the effects of the wind, sea and current.

And throughout the voyage, the vaccine itself had to be kept in cold bags at an ambient temperature of between 2⁰C and 8⁰C, with sailors regularly checking them.

Only 60 minutes were allowed to pass between the vaccine doses leaving the ship and arriving in the refrigerator on Tristan da Cunha.

This was a vital lifeline to a community whose nearest support is seven days' sailing away

Commander Chris Hollingworth

Commodore Jonathan Lett, Commander British Forces South Atlantic, said the operation had been a huge logistical challenge – one which everyone involved had risen to.

He said: “The entire operation has been a great team effort from start to finish. I am hugely proud of every member of the BFSAI (British Forces South Atlantic Islands) team involved in all elements of this epic journey.”

The rapid offload was all the more fortunate as strong winds mean the island’s sole harbour is only open for 60 days per year and rarely in the austral winter.

Forth’s medical officer Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Rory Goodenough was the only member of the ship’s company to accompany the vaccine ashore – following in the footsteps of his father who spent six months on the island as a botanist a generation ago – and was well-received by the islanders. 

“This was a vital lifeline to a community whose nearest support is seven days' sailing away,” said Commander Chris Hollingworth, Forth’s Commanding Officer.

“This latest tasking has demonstrated the exceptional utility of the South Atlantic Patrol Vessel and the capability of a forward-deployed OPV.

“Most significantly, the UK and Royal Navy have reaffirmed their enduring commitment to our overseas territories by safeguarding Tristan da Cunha’s over 200 inhabitants against the very real threat of Covid-19.”

Forth was the first ship to call on the volcanic island in eight months – and the first Royal Navy vessels to stop in six years.

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