Queen awards UK health service on its 73rd anniversary

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This undated handout issued by Buckingham Palace on Sunday, July 4, 2021 shows a copy of the handwritten message from Queen Elizabeth II in support of the award of the George Cross to the UK's National Health Services (NHS). The George Cross is granted in recognition of "acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger", and recognises actions by civilians and military personnel not in the face of the enemy. (Buckingham Palace via AP)

LONDON – Queen Elizabeth II has awarded the U.K.’s highest civilian award for gallantry to the National Health Service, offering a handwritten message of thanks to the public organization and its workers on its 73rd anniversary.

In a message written on Windsor Castle stationery, the monarch said it gave her great pleasure to give the award from a grateful nation. NHS staff have been lauded throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for working tirelessly to save lives and vaccinate the public amid an outbreak that has killed more than 128,000 people, the most in Europe.

“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,’’ the queen wrote. “You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation.”

The award came as Britain prepared for a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to commemorate the public healthcare service's founding and honor workers on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. Among those taking part are the doctor who treated the U.K.’s first known victims of the virus, the nurse who delivered the first dose of vaccine and vaccine scientist Sarah Gilbert, who designed the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Duchess of Cambridge was forced to cancel plans to attend because she is self-isolating after coming in close contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. Prince William, the Duchess’s husband, contracted the disease last spring.

“Her Royal Highness is not experiencing any symptoms, but is following all relevant government guidelines and is self-isolating at home,” Kensington Palace said in a statement Monday.

The George Cross was created by the queen’s father, King George VI, at the height of the Blitz in 1940 to honor “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

This is only the third time the George Cross has been awarded to a collective entity. Malta was honored in 1942 for the fortitude displayed by its citizens when the island was besieged by Nazi forces. The Royal Ulster Constabulary received the award in 1999 for the bravery of its officers and their families during the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland that killed more than 3,000 people over three decades.