ROBERT HARDMAN: A truly personal tribute from the Queen

ROBERT HARDMAN: On behalf of her grateful nation, a truly personal tribute from the Queen

Their ranks include men like Olaf Schmid, the bomb disposal legend who saved his comrades from 70 Taliban devices before he was killed by the 71st, and Jim Beaton, the royal bodyguard who took three bullets from a madman trying to kidnap Princess Anne.

They include the impossibly brave British wartime agents Odette Sansom, who narrowly survived her Gestapo torturers and Ravensbruck concentration camp, and Violette Szabo, who tragically did not.

They include the wartime population of the most heavily bombed place on earth – Malta.

And now they include the heroes of the Covid front line.

The award of the George Cross to the National Health Service is the greatest accolade a grateful nation can bestow beyond the field of battle. There is no decoration – military or civilian – comparable to the GC other than the Victoria Cross, which can only be won ‘in the presence of the enemy’.

The Queen has awarded the George Cross to the NHS for seven decades of public service and battling the pandemic

We don’t often see the Queen writing out Palace statements herself. This is personal as well as official. (Prime Minister Boris Johnson host National Thank You Day)

The two decorations are traditionally ranked alongside each other. Their holders all belong to the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, which has a lively reunion every other year in the presence of royalty.

It is also particularly striking that this award has been made in the Queen’s own handwriting – just as her father wrote the award of the GC to Malta in his own hand back in 1942.

We don’t often see the Queen writing out Palace statements herself. This is personal as well as official.

There will, inevitably, be claims that this is some sort of Government stunt to distract attention from the tawdry saga of the former health secretary.

After all, such awards are made on the advice of the Prime Minister and the George Cross Committee, which must meet to endorse each decision. 

Staff nurse Estrella Catalan had worked at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for 18 years. After being hospitalised herself with Covid, she was talking of her determination to get back to work not long before she took a turn for the worse and died in February

Dr Gamal Osman, a consultant at Southmead Hospital, who died of Covid-19 on January 28

We don’t often see the Queen writing out Palace statements herself. This is personal as well as official

This is chaired by Sir Chris Wormald, who happens to be permanent secretary at the Department of Health.

Some will ask why the Government can dispense such an exalted honour with one hand while limiting the NHS to a 1 per cent pay rise with the other. Those are legitimate questions – but for another day.

For they should take nothing away from the magnitude of this award, which will have been subjected to careful scrutiny by all six members of the George Cross Committee long before Matt Hancock’s furtive fumble hit the headlines.

The members include the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Edward Young, and the former head of MI5, Lord Evans.

The George Cross was created by King George VI at the height of the Blitz. Up until then, there was nothing to honour the bravery of those performing astonishing acts of valour which were not ‘in the presence of the enemy’.

So the King devised a new gallantry decoration – the George Cross – to recognise ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.

He also created the George Medal for gallantry of ‘an extremely high order’.

Those early GCs were given to men and women like Colonel Stuart Archer, a modest former Royal Engineer whom I was lucky enough to meet a few times before his death at the age of 100.

Yet, day after day, thousands of NHS staff unhesitatingly came in to work, doing their duty in the face of a potentially lethal virus while the rest of the country stayed at home. Pictured: Rajinder Singh receiving applause from staff at the Royal Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, as he is discharged after 151 days being treated for COVID 19

The odds had been heavily against him reaching 25. As a young bomb disposal officer stationed in South Wales, he had survived several near-suicidal missions to extract the fuses from unexploded bombs, providing crucial technical intelligence for military scientists.

In the summer of 1940, he was given permission to move his young wife into his Army digs on the basis that his life expectancy was a matter of days.

At one point, he was defusing a series of unexploded bombs in a Swansea oil refinery while it was ablaze. Two went off while he was in the process of defusing another.

He put his success down to ‘luck, luck, luck’. To which one might have added: ‘Guts, guts, guts.’

For that is what the George Cross really recognises. The very first one was awarded to a Bridlington air raid warden, Thomas Alderson, who dug down beneath several collapsed or collapsing buildings, dodging burst water pipes, gas leaks and ongoing enemy bombing, to rescue several people trapped in the wreckage.

Later awards included a GC for BOAC stewardess Barbara Harrison who refused to head for the emergency exit after her plane made a crash landing at Heathrow in 1968. She was still helping a disabled passenger when the flames overcame them both.

Many (I dare say most) of those in the NHS will say that their work cannot possibly be compared to this sort of heroism. Yet let us think back to the early days of this pandemic when we hadn’t a clue what we were dealing with. Nor did we have the tools with which to tackle it.

Yet, day after day, thousands of NHS staff unhesitatingly came in to work, doing their duty in the face of a potentially lethal virus while the rest of the country stayed at home.

Having just lost his own brother to the coronavirus, Dr Gamal Osman, 63, refused to be transferred away from the Covid wards at Bristol’s Southmead Hospital.

‘This isn’t a time for cowards,’ he told colleagues, before he contracted the virus and died earlier this year.

Staff nurse Estrella Catalan had worked at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for 18 years. After being hospitalised herself with Covid, she was talking of her determination to get back to work not long before she took a turn for the worse and died in February.

It was the dangers facing NHS staff just like these which prompted this newspaper to start the Mail Force campaign last year. Our readers responded magnificently, helping to raise a staggering £12million for vital personal protective equipment. 

It was the dangers facing NHS staff just like these which prompted this newspaper to start the Mail Force campaign last year

That was an illustration of what we felt as a nation.

At the same time, the UK was coming out on the doorsteps every week to applaud staff who would simply say they were ‘getting on with the job’. The Queen summed it up in her speech to the nation back in the darkest days of the pandemic – on the very evening the Prime Minister was being rushed to hospital.

‘Those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any,’ she said. ‘The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.’

You only needed to take a peek inside a hermetically sealed Covid intensive care unit – as I did one grim day last winter – to see the scale of this monumental challenge. An army of NHS staff dutifully rose to it, just as they will surely do so again one day if called.

The Queen was careful to note that the award reflects the work of the NHS across seven decades, but ‘especially in recent times’. She also made it plain that it honours ‘all disciplines and all four nations’. Healthcare may be devolved. Valour is not.

This is a sensible and dignified award which goes a long way to answering those who, for some time now, have been demanding some sort of national award for the Covid front line.

Many people in Malta still proudly give their address as ‘Malta GC’. Look at the Maltese flag and there it is in the top left corner – the silver cross which bespeaks conspicuous courage. All those members of the RUC – which received the award in 1999 – feel a similar pride.

For all its umpteen faults – we can all name plenty and we will continue to do so – this a great day in the history of the NHS.

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