What is a George Cross Award? Medal explained - as Queen awards NHS staff on 73rd birthday

The award recognises “all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations”

The award to the NHS marks only the third occasion on which the George Cross, which may be awarded posthumously, has been awarded to a collective body, country or organisation, rather than an individual.

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What is a George Cross Award?

The gallantry George Cross was instituted by King George VI on September 24 1940 during the height of the Blitz.

The award of the George Cross by the Queen is made on the advice of the George Cross Committee and the Prime Minister.

In 1942, the George Cross was conferred on Malta by George VI, in recognition of the fortitude displayed by the island’s inhabitants during enemy bombardments in the Second World War.

Queen Elizabeth II said it's been her "great pleasure" on behalf of a "grateful nation" to give the NHS a George's Cross award (Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

And in 1999, the Queen awarded the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, in recognition of the force’s bravery, including the families of those serving.

It is granted in recognition of “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger”.

Civilian gallantry awards also recognise the bravery of people who attempt to save someone’s life.

Other gallantry awards include the George Medal, Queen’s Gallantry Medal, and Queen’s Commendation for Bravery/Bravery in the Air.

The general public can nominate someone for a gallantry award - if they have shown bravery in the past five years.

Recommendations are judged on ‘degree of risk, how aware the nominee was of the danger and persistence’.

If someone is recommended after they’ve died they’ll get a posthumous award.

They do not have to be British (except for the George Cross award).

Why was the NHS given a George Cross award?

In a personal, handwritten message, the Queen said NHS staff have carried out their work “with courage, compassion and dedication” for more than 70 years.

In her message, on Windsor Castle-headed paper, 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.”

Details of the presentation of the award will be confirmed at a later date.

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “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 and the greatest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War.

“Out of those dark times have come the best of what it means to be a carer and a health professional.”

Last year, Lord Ashcroft wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson recommending the Queen bestow the award on the NHS.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Those working in the NHS have done an incredible job caring for so many during this awful pandemic.

“The George Cross is the highest possible honour a civilian can achieve and I want to pay tribute to everyone across the NHS for their heroism and sacrifice.”