Should there be a medal for the UK's coronavirus heroes?

A campaign prompts the question of how Britain should honour civilian acts of great bravery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 12 Aug 2020, 08:42 BST

NHS University Lewisham Hospital nursing staff and workers gather outside for the ninth 'clap for our carers' observance: 21 May 2020. Held on a Thursday evening at 8pm, the national observance widely ceased the following week. Now there are calls for a more formal recognition of the sacrifices made and risks taken by civilian workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photograph by Guy Corbishley, Alamy

As the weekly nationwide Clap for Carers is now a memory, the UK faces the question of how to acknowledge the service and bravery of NHS staff during the COVID-19 crisis. Hundreds of health service workers have died while thousands have returned day after day to the hazardous conditions of Intensive Care Units to care for coronavirus sufferers, despite a lack of confidence in their personal protective equipment.

To recognise their work, thousands of people have signed a petition calling for a COVID-19 medal to be awarded to all emergency service staff who continued to work “at great personal risk, during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Military overtones, civilian acts

Historically, medals have been largely associated with exceptional courage in the armed forces. Yet it has been striking how much of the language used to describe the campaign against COVID-19 has military overtones – the words 'threat', 'battle', 'fight', 'front line' and 'defeat' featuring regularly in Government bulletins. 

Continuing this theme, the NHS medal petition says: “Work in the emergency services is a dangerous profession under normal circumstances, where staff sacrifice personal freedoms to serve the public. Whilst the COVID-19 crisis is an obvious and extreme example, this valiance builds on a foundation of daily selfless commitment and should be formally recognised by the public and state in the form of a medal.”

While the petition’s tally of signatures continues to grow, a further 123 rejected petitions have called for a variety of medal commendations to honour medical workers. Some asked for the minting of a ‘Nightingale’ medal for all NHS staff; others requested the award of a posthumous medal for NHS staff who lost their lives to COVID-19; and some suggested that the NHS as a whole should receive the George Cross, the highest civilian medal for bravery.

“A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. ”

Winston Churchill

The George Cross, the highest civilian award ‘for gallantry.’ The most recent recipient of the award in 2018 was security consultant Dominic Troulan who, after heavily-armed terrorists entered a shopping mall in Nairobi and began killing shoppers indiscriminately, entered the building more than a dozen times to guide innocent bystanders to safety. The citation recounts how, “He was fired on twice by the terrorists but managed to force them back.” The Gazette holds records of all civilian bravery awards.   

Photograph by PjrStudio, Alamy

The businessman and historian Lord Ashcroft, who owns the largest collection of Victoria Crosses, the highest award for military valour, has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for the Queen to bestow a collective George Cross on the NHS “for the incredible efforts of its staff in treating coronavirus patients.”

The George Cross and George Medal were introduced by King George VI in 1940 to reward civilian “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.” The George Cross has twice been presented collectively – to the island of Malta in 1942 for refusing to capitulate to German forces despite suffering 154 days of consecutive bombing, and to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999 for the collective and sustained bravery of the police force.

Bravery in the face of disease

However, there is also a precedent for a medal that recognises bravery in the face of a virus. The Ebola Medal of 2015 paid homage to over 3,000 military and civilian personnel, including NHS doctors and nurses, who left the UK to help stop the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa.The medal was the first to honour people who tackled a humanitarian crisis, acknowledging the highly dangerous environment in which they had to work. In a written statement to Parliament at the time, Prime Minister David Cameron said, “The Ebola medal pays tribute to the bravery and selflessness of civilian and military personnel who have taken on great personal risk to support the UK Government’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.” The parallels with the coronavirus crisis seem clear.

Chalk drawings on Portobello Promenade, Edinburgh, salute the NHS. Similar recruitment of the rainbow symbol and the weekly 'clap for carers' have been one of many ways the public have expressed gratitude for the work of the emergency services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Photograph by Iain Masterton, Alamy

More than a century earlier another civilian medal was cast to recognise specifically the service and dedication of medical personnel. The Royal Red Cross was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1883 for women who showed special devotion while nursing the sick and wounded of the Army and Navy; Florence Nightingale was one of the first recipients. In 1997 the Royal Red Cross was extended to include men, although it is still restricted to members of the nursing services of the armed forces.

These days, four medals recognise civilian acts of bravery. The George Cross remains the highest accolade, followed by the George Medal, while the Queen’s Gallantry Medal is the third level for ‘inspiring acts of bravery’, and the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery is the fourth level – presented for acts which involve a risk to life.

The responsibility for creating any new official medal and for awarding existing medals lies with the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals (known as the HD Committee), which must submit its proposals to the Queen for approval. The HD Committee is chaired by Sir Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, and includes the Cabinet Secretary and Chief of Defence Staff among its 14-strong members. Accounts and citations of civilian acts of bravery are published in The Gazette, an official journal of record.

Landmarks of London, such as the London Eye, right, were lit emergency blue to honour the sacrifice of NHS workers, 26 March 2020. 

Photograph by Guy Corbishley, Alamy

By awarding medals sparingly, the HD Committee has maintained the value and respect for these official acknowledgements of valour and heroism. There is, however, no escaping the fact that no matter how well intended, the honour bestowed by a medal, either to an individual or collective body, can also disappoint deserving people who are overlooked.

Sir Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in March 1944, “The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value. There must, therefore, be heartburnings and disappointments on the border line. A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit of a perfect solution. It is not possible to satisfy everybody without running the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.”

Medals have been created for bravery in the face of disease before – and have been used as political statements. In 2015 the Ebola medal was awarded to doctors, nurses and midwives who battled the outbreak of the disease in West Africa. As shown above – in an event facilitated by Lord Alfred Dubs, (centre) – some 18 individuals subsequently returned the medals in protest of the government's refusal to extend rights to undocumented migrants as part of the 'hostile environment' immigration bill. 

Photograph by Mark Kerrison, Alamy

A monument to the many

While the creation of a new NHS medal is still the subject of debate, medical staff can look forward to recognition on the new National Emergency Services Monument. Dubbed the ‘999 Cenotaph’ in reference to the Whitehall monument that remembers the fallen of the Great War, the original design of the monument has been adapted to include an NHS figure, dressed in scrubs and PPE, to stand alongside a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, a maritime figure (to represent HM Coastguard and the lifeboats) and a search and rescue volunteer (to represent mountain, lowland, cave and mine rescue), as well as a search and rescue spaniel.

This national symbol of gratitude, sacrifice and remembrance has yet to be built, but will be unveiled in central London between the autumn of 2022 and the spring of 2023, said Tom Scholes-Fogg, the policeman who set up the charity which is funding the monument.

The design for the National Emergency Services Memorial. Shown here from the 'health' side, it depicts a NHS worker in full PPE and a paramedic.

Photograph by Tom Scholes-Fogg

“There are lots of police and fire service memorials, but nothing that brings them all together,” said Scholes-Fogg. “This five-sided monument has been designed so each service can lay a wreath below its respective figure.”

The National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s centre of remembrance, has also said that, “it is our belief that the service and sacrifice of our NHS and our key workers could be recognised with a memorial within our grounds.”

And finally, the Thursday evening nationwide applause for people at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus may have ended, but there is now a campaign to instate 25 March 2021 as Clap for our Carers Day, so the public at large has a chance to salute the valiant ongoing efforts of, as the campaign states, “doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, emergency services, armed services, public transport staff, delivery drivers, porters, shop workers, teachers, waste collectors, manufacturers, postal workers, cleaners, vets, engineers and all those who are out there making an unbelievable difference to our lives in these challenging times… bravo, you are amazing!”


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