express– The service is to be honoured today, its 73rd anniversary, with Britain’s highest civilian medal. But the news triggered calls for new Health Secretary Sajid Javid to reward our Covid heroes with a fair pay rise of “at least five per cent”. In a handwritten tribute, the monarch praised NHS employees for their pandemic response. The Queen wrote: “It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom.
“This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations.
“Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service.
“You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation.”
The move comes three months after the Daily Express launched a campaign for the collective honour to be bestowed on health workers after the greatest crisis in NHS history. Welcoming the “unprecedented” George Cross, below, Sir Simon Stevens – chief executive of NHS England – said the demands of the pandemic had brought out “the best” in care staff.
But there were also demands for the Government to follow the joint medal with a wage rise larger than the suggested one per cent.
Sara Gorton, head of health at the Unison union, said: “The NHS truly deserves this prestigious award. The health service and its staff have gone to extraordinary lengths over the last 73 years – no more so than in the past 16 months.
“But this is not enough. Ministers must now honour staff by giving the NHS the resources to tackle the Covid backlog, starting with a decent pay rise for everyone.”
Dr John Puntis, co-chairman of campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, said: “Recognition of the ‘conspicuous courage’ shown by NHS staff during the coronavirus pandemic is welcome, but does not detract from the need to show appreciation in a much more concrete way.
“After a decade of austerity the average spending power of NHS workers has fallen by eight percent.
“The one percent pay offer is frankly an insult and does not even come close to what is needed. NHS staff deserve so much more.”
He added: “Claps don’t pay the bills and neither do honours, however well-intentioned.”
Prof Kailash Chand, honorary vice-president of the British Medical Association, said: “We owe those working in the NHS a huge debt of thanks.”
He urged ministers to reward them, as the Queen had done: “I plead to the Prime Minister to award [the] NHS workforce in England with at least a five percent pay rise.”
Prof Chand, 70, added: “Any awards or clapping in absence of a pay rise are seen as an empty gesture and will seriously affect recruitment and retention when we need the NHS workforce more than ever to deal with a massive backlog.”
The George Cross is the highest civilian honour for gallantry.
It was instituted on September 24 1940 by the Queen’s father, George VI, and is given for bravery not in the presence of an enemy.
Today’s award is only the third time it has gone to an organisation, collective body or to a country rather than to an individual.
In 1942, it was conferred on the island of Malta by George VI, recognising the population’s bravery during attacks in the Second World War.
In 1999 the Queen awarded the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary for the heroic service of staff and families.
The most recent recipient is Dominic Troulan, a retired British Army officer and former Royal Marine. He was given the medal on June 16 2017 for his courage during a 2013 terrorist attack at a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
Welcoming today’s honour, NHS boss Sir Simon paid tribute to all those who played their part in the “greatest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War.This unprecedented award rightly recognises the skill and compassion and the fortitude of staff right across the National Health Service.
“The nurses, the paramedics, the doctors, the cleaners, the therapists, the entire team who under the most demanding of circumstances have responded to the worst pandemic in a century.
“Out of those dark times have come the best of what it means to be a carer and a health professional.
“We have seen extraordinary team work, not just across the NHS but involving hundreds of thousands of volunteers, millions of carers, key workers and the British public who have played an indispensable role in helping the health service to look after many hundreds of thousands of seriously ill patients with coronavirus.
“As we congratulate staff across the health service on this award, we recognise that completing the NHS Covid vaccination programme which is in the final stages is now the surest way out of this pandemic.”
Pat Cullen, acting general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing staff led the foundation of the NHS and today they continue to lead the response to the pandemic.
“Along with all of their colleagues they should hold their heads high today to be recognised in this way.”
The virus outbreak has left around 151,000 dead in the UK, including at least 230 frontline health staff. The award came after the country’s first national Thank You Day which included landmarks being lit in honour of NHS staff.
The idea came from a grassroots campaign to hold the biggest-ever party in communities to thank each other and build on the community spirit that so many felt during lockdown.
The campaign won support from hundreds of groups, such as the NHS and the Scouts, and from high-profile individuals including TV presenter Gary Lineker, actors Michael Sheen and Dame Judi Dench and footballer Raheem Sterling.