THE Queen awarded the George Cross to the NHS on Monday, the 73rd anniversary of its founding, which was marked by a service in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Equal in rank to the military Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest award for non-operational gallantry and heroism in Britain. In a handwritten letter released on Monday, the Queen thanks all NHS staff past and present for supporting “the people of our country with courage, compassion, and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service” — especially in recent times.
It is only the third time that the award has been given to an organisation since it was established by her father, King George VI, during the height of the Blitz in 1940.
The invitation-only service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s was attended by the Duke of Cambridge and front-line NHS staff and patients. The Duchess was due to attend, but is currently self-isolating at Kensington Palace after coming into contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Prince William was later due to meet staff for an “NHS Big Tea” in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
The service was led by the Dean, the Very Revd Dr David Ison. In his welcome, he thanked the founders of the NHS “who envisaged and realised a system of healthcare available to all regardless of their wealth” and everyone who had served the NHS since, especially during the Covid crisis.
“We commend to God those who have died as a consequence of this pandemic, and we pray for those who mourn their passing,” he said. “We pray for all whose health has been marred by the strains and stresses of these difficult days, and we commit ourselves afresh to fostering communities of care and well-being where all may have life and have it in abundance.”
Two addresses were given, one by the chief executive of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, and a second by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who was Chief Nursing Officer before her consecration. Quoting John Donne, the poet and former Dean of St Paul’s, “No man is an island,” she said: “In the last 18 months we have felt the loss of connectivity to those we love. We have been forced to distance ourselves physically, unable to reach out to family and friends with whom hugs, a hand reached out in care, an arm around a shoulder, would in other times convey love, closeness, compassion and care. . .
“We belong together in community, in relationship, which should be cherished. We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others, and maybe the best working-out of that relationship is seen in the NHS.”
It had been founded with a vision of universal, equal healthcare, and remained “a demonstration of community and of solidarity in society, between generations, between rich and poor — and between people of diverse cultures and ethnic heritage”. But the exemplary care that had been given during the pandemic had “come at a cost”: the mental health of its staff and of a nation for years to come.
Reflections were also given by Dr Ashley Price, a consultant in infectious diseases and general internal medicine at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, on care offered during the pandemic; and by Katherine Dawson, who last March was admitted to Blackpool Victoria Hospital with Covid-19 when 32 weeks pregnant. “I am standing here today because of the NHS,” she said.
Hymns sung by the cathedral choir included “Guide me, O thou great redeemer” and “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The service concluded with the National Anthem.
To mark the anniversary and express gratitude to the work of the NHS during the pandemic, there was a two-minute silence at Canterbury Cathedral at 11 a.m., and Bell Harry was tolled for two minutes at 8 p.m.