Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
As we continue to battle the Coronavirus pandemic, May 8 has a new significance this year – as the next date on which the national lockdown will be reviewed.
With so many people indoors, the traditional May Bank Holiday seems oddly disconnected from the challenges we all now face. Yet the other celebration connected to May 8 – VE Day – resonates with so much that is going on now.
Since this outbreak began, wartime comparisons have been common. We speak of our incredible health staff on the frontline. Efforts to build ventilators evoke memories of Dunkirk. The Government talks of unprecedented peacetime measures. The work of volunteers invokes the Blitz spirit.
The 75th anniversary of VE Day may have been curtailed by a new foe, but in these challenging times, it provides a link with a past generation who overcame the last great national test of the civilian population.
It was during World War Two that the George Cross was created to reflect the courage of those civilians who showed extraordinary bravery in the face of danger. We are seeing that courage again today. I believe that the campaign for our NHS staff to receive the George Cross, inspired by Lord Ashcroft, is an appropriate recognition for their incredible efforts.
Last week I was honoured to join HRH Prince William to help officially open the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC. Just a few weeks ago, this was an empty space. Now it is a fully-operational hospital providing 500 beds.
This Herculean feat involved NHS staff and companies from across the region working together with the military. It stands as a testament to what we can achieve if we pull together as one. It also represents the respect and gratitude we all feel towards our NHS staff.
The Nightingale name above the door also perfectly embodies the driving principles of those who are on the frontline of this crisis – they are saving lives whilst demonstrating care and compassion.
The NHS, from the doctors and nurses on the wards, to the ambulance crews and paramedics, and all support staff, represents the very best of our society. This crisis has shown, more than ever, the vital importance of a health service that is free at the point of use. Look around the world, at the disjointed approach produced by countries where private healthcare is prevalent, and you can see the true value of our single, united health service.
The nation’s weekly doorstep celebration of the NHS – millions of people applauding, whistling, ringing bells and banging pots and pans in a chorus of support – is proof of the debt of gratitude felt by all.
As an institution, the NHS reflects so much of the best of British society. The NHS is truly democratic, treating everyone the same. The personal gratitude expressed by the Prime Minister to the nurses and staff who oversaw his recovery from COVID-19 illustrates how the NHS is there for all of us.
The NHS also reflects of the diversity of our modern society. In the crisis, we see the young caring for the old, and we also see retired doctors and nurses returning to join the fight. We see NHS staff from all backgrounds and from across the globe helping the people of the UK.
Right now, the NHS is also hugely important to the health of our economy. As we try to protect business through the duration of the crisis, the NHS is a huge employer that simply keeps going. At the same time, our health service is feeding sectors that can drive our economic recovery, like the innovative life sciences cluster here in the West Midlands, as well as the pharmaceutical industry nationally.
As a huge organisation with vast procurement power, the NHS is often a catalyst for business innovation. Here in the West Midlands, the roll-out of 5G is driving innovation in digital healthcare while our hospitals and universities collaborate closely to develop preventative medicine.
When our region was the first in the UK to draw up an Industrial Strategy, innovation driven by the NHS formed a core part of our ambitions. The NHS can play an important part not only in the recovery of our nation’s health post pandemic, it can help heal the economy too.
Of course as an institution, the NHS needs care and investment. Prior to the outbreak, the Government unveiled a huge programme of future investment, but now, as we fight this virus, our focus is rightly being placed on the here and now. Some areas are clearly not as good as we want – such as the continuing issue of sourcing enough PPE. The appointment of Lord Deighton as a PPE ‘Tsar’ will improve this, as he brings to bear his immense experience in organising the London Olympics on the challenge at hand.
We see now, more than ever, how the NHS is the embodiment of British society. And it is the NHS staff, putting themselves at risk daily, who have become our modern heroes and heroines. That is why I believe the George Cross is an appropriate acknowledgment of the bravery we are seeing.
This is not a gimmick and is more than mere pomp and circumstance. These awards exist to allow us, as a society, to recognise those who have stepped forward in a time of need.
These are unprecedented times, but awarding this medal collectively, to thousands of people for their joint endeavour, has been done before. In another echo of World War Two, we must look back more than 70 years to find a fitting precedent.
In 1942 The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George, so as to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the great siege they underwent in the early part of the Second World War.
Six years after Malta received the George Cross, the NHS was founded. After seven decades of devoted service to the British people, NHS staff now find themselves under siege too, from the Coronavirus. There is no doubt in my mind that this is their finest hour.
It is time to reflect the unique contribution to our society of the NHS, and the gallantry shown by its staff. The National Health Service has earned the George Cross.