Prince William and his wife Kate surprised NHS staff handling the growing coronavirus pandemic on Friday, but narrowly missed shaking hands with a staff member during a visit to a call handling centre.
The duke and duchess paid a secret visit to the London Ambulance Service 111 control room in Croydon, to meet staff who are taking calls from the public.
The pair stuck to government guidelines but were nearly caught out by one call handler who asked for a selfie and then put her hand out to shake the duke’s.
“Don’t shake hands!” William laughed while studiously avoiding the contact.
“We can do a photograph if we are not within a metre of each other,” he swiftly added to alleviate any tension or embarrassment.
Afterwards, the woman behind the almost-handshake – 32-year-old supervisor Courtney Campbell – laughed off her mistake.
“That was so funny. I went to shake the hand. Coronavirus!” she told gathered press.
“I guess it’s just polite, isn’t it? In the professional environment we are so used to being greeted and shaking hands with each other.”
The LAS has reported receiving five times as many calls to its 111 service compared to pre-coronavirus days.
“The last few weeks, and more recent days, have been understandably concerning with the continuing spread of coronavirus,” The Duke of Cambridge said.
“But it’s at times like this when we realise just how much the NHS represents the very best of our country and society – people from all backgrounds and walks of life with different experiences and skills, pulling together for the common good.”
He also highlighted the importance of supporting support workers, saying it is our duty to uphold their emotional health.
“Not only are NHS staff and emergency workers responding to the needs of the public,” he said. “They – like the rest of us – are concerned about their families, friends and loved ones. They need our support as much as we need theirs.”
He went on to say the pair were ‘proud’ to have visited the centre, and was encouraged by the online and over-the-phone tools set up to deal with the outbreak.
“That is why Catherine and I were proud to visit staff working at NHS 111, to pass on our personal thanks, along with those of my grandmother and father, to staff working around the clock to provide care and advice to those that need it most,” he said.
‘All have a part to play’
He also echoed his grandmother’s words when discussing reaponsible approaches to the virus.
“All of us have a part to play if we’re going to protect the most vulnerable,” he said. “That means acting on the latest expert advice, staying home if we or those we live with have symptoms, and avoiding non-essential contact to help reduce the spread of the virus.”
The visit was unannounced so as to avoid crowds gathering, and so it would not clash with the Queen’s message to the nation on Thursday afternoon.
Garrett Emmerson, chief executive officer of the London Ambulance Service said: “Our staff are working incredibly hard in all four of our call centres taking more than twice as many calls as usual. It has therefore been an incredible boost to staff to be able to meet with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
“Their Royal Highnesses spoke to some of our 111 call handlers and clinicians who are extraordinarily busy as we work hard to support Londoners and the wider NHS.”
During the visit Kate told the first call handler she spoke to: “It’s amazing. You’re doing such a great job bringing everyone together and providing that, the support system, for the whole public.”
William added: “There’s a lot of people out there who want to help. A lot of work is closing down elsewhere so people are going to want to come and volunteer, people want to help, people want to be there to support you guys, and everyone knows what a fantastic job you guys are doing.”
William also met someone who turned out to be a former telephonist in Buckingham Palace - and met him when he was a baby.
He asked her: “Was I behaving myself? A rowdy little child?”
Afterwards she said: “He said, ‘Was I well behaved?’. I said, ‘I can’t say sir – the press are here!’.”
She added: “I worked there when his mum was getting married.”
Diana used to go into the switchboard room, she said.
“She used to be taking calls with us. I saw the ring!” she added.
“He was just a little baby when she brought him down.”
She said the royal visit would raise morale and was a “pat on the back”.
In a sit down with staff, the royal couple were seated more than two metres away to show the importance of social distancing.
Kate asked after the mental health impact of the virus, Mr Emmerson said ‘a large volume’
They also spoke about how people can help in order to bolster the response from the NHS.
The duke also confessed the visit made him miss his old job as an air ambulance pilot according to one of the call handlers.
Tracy Pidgeon, 54, who normally has a management job but is helping out with calls, said: “He was asking about how busy we have been, and what shifts everybody was doing. We were saying everybody was working really hard.
“He misses the helicopter, being on the front line. He just said he misses it.”
Mr Emmerson said the duke would be ‘welcome any time’ to the London air ambulance.
William encourages the effort
“Well done on you guys. It’s lovely to see you,” Wills said at the conclusion of the visit.
Royals take on coronavirus
Their visit comes after a slight gaffe by William earlier this month raised eyebrows.
The Duke of Cambridge was caught on camera joking with a paramedic about the virus that has people across the globe terrified, making what some have deemed inappropriate jokes.
Speaking with paramedic Joe Mooney of Ireland’s National Ambulance Service while visiting the Guinness Storehouse, the Duke asked if he had seen any hysteria around the outbreak.
“I bet everyone’s like ‘I’ve got coronavirus, I’m dying’, and you’re like ‘No, you’ve just got a cough’,” he said, before asking the paramedic’s opinion around the illness.
“Does it seem quite dramatic about coronavirus at the moment? Is it being a little bit hyped up do you think in the media?”
Taking a jovial tone, the royal pulled a face and joked about criticism around his and Kate’s decision to continue to shake hands with members of the public on their national tour.
Now the family have done an about-face, taking the virus as seriously as is warranted. As of 8 am Saturday March 21 over 10,000 have died from the illness globally.
Yesterday, the Queen issued a message urging people to play their part in tackling the outbreak of COVID-19, and calling for people to try and stay home.
“Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge.”
The latest update from the royal family comes after Princess Beatrice was forced to cancel her royal wedding due to the danger of transmitting the virus, instead opting for a private ceremony with just a chaplain and her fiance, a source says.
Prince Harry is also said to be concerned for his grandmother Queen Elizabeth. He is said to be self-isolating in his new Candian home with wife Meghan and baby Archie.
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