Health Minister Robin Swann has said the award of the George Cross by the Queen to the NHS on the health service’s 73rd anniversary “recognises decades of dedicated service”, including its heroic efforts during the pandemic.
The official citation for the honour names the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care system alongside the National Health Services in England, Scotland and Wales.
The George Cross is given for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.
In a personal message to accompany the award, the Queen said: “This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations. Collectively, over more than seven decades, they have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service.
“You have the enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation of us all.”
Mr Swann said the award marked “a very special and poignant day”.
“It recognises decades of dedicated service by the National Health Services, including the courageous work by staff during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
“This is for everyone working across Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care system at all levels. We will be forever indebted to them — for their commitment, compassion and expertise.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge faced by the health service since its inception. The response from our health and care staff has been both inspirational and humbling. They are indeed the best of us.”
Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said: “Today is a time for reflection on all the ways the health service has cared for us, individually and collectively. I have seen up close how the health and care system has responded to the pandemic, protecting people from the virus and saving many lives.”
The only other two times the George Cross — the highest civilian gallantry award, equivalent to the Victoria Cross, has been awarded collectively were to the RUC for the courage of officers and their families during the Troubles, and the people of Malta — its British air force base was vital to the allied effort in World War Two, and the besieged island’s people endured enormous hardship.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We wouldn’t be where we are today without our health services. NHS staff have cared for us and our friends and family on the frontline of a pandemic for over a year, and I have witnessed their courage first-hand. Thanks to their devotion and duty our NHS has saved countless lives, and the George Cross is a symbol of the nation’s gratitude.”