The Duke of Cambridge has applauded the “extraordinary” efforts of NHS workers throughout the “truly relentless” pandemic as he hosted an NHS Big Tea at Buckingham Palace.

Prince William, 39, chatted to 28 specially selected health service staff, from nurses to caterers, as they were treated to afternoon tea in the palace gardens to mark the 73rd anniversary of the NHS.

The idea for the event was conceived by the Duke and Duchess last December, when they were named joint patrons of NHS Charities Together, and were keen to thank frontline staff on behalf of the nation.

The Queen gave the Cambridges permission to plan the event at the beginning of the year, heralding a return to garden parties that have been cancelled since the crisis began.

However, the Duke had to attend the engagement alone after the Duchess, 39, was forced to self isolate, having been notified on Friday that she had come into contact with someone who later tested positive for coronavirus.

The staff gathered in small groups on the lawn, enjoying a selection of finger sandwiches and tea.

A brass band played as the Duke chatted animatedly with each attendee in turn, asking them about their roles.

He told them: “I am delighted you could all come here and thank you. What you guys are doing on a daily basis is just extraordinary, I don’t know how you all keep it up, it’s been truly relentless.”

Prince William speaks to guests at Buckingham Palace

Credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/Pool

The gathering was one of hundreds held up and down the country after more than 5,000 people applied to hold their own Big Tea party in local streets, schools, sport clubs and churches as a way of thanking local community heroes.

The Duke met Tony Larks, a volunteer First Responder Volunteer from Bracknell, Berks, who described how he had saved a patient who suffered a cardiac arrest on his first ever shift.

Mr Larks, 48, joined South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust last year in response to the pandemic and has clocked up almost 1,000 hours of voluntary service while at the same time working full time as a graphic designer.

He said: “The Duke was really interested in the role, having been in the emergency services himself I could tell he had a real passion for it.

“He asked what it was like on a day-to-day basis, juggling two roles, but I joked it was just an excuse to get out of the house.

“It has given me a different perspective on life and being able to help people in my local community is such a rewarding role. It’s something I won’t look back on and will keep doing it as long as I am needed.”

Immense pressure

Asking Tony about the mental health provisions in his role, the Duke said: “The immense pressure you are dealing with, but it’s fantastic you are able to help out in such a way.”

Another attendee was Michelle Butler, a specialist behaviour support practitioner at Sussex Partnership Trust, who coordinated the delivery of more than 600 mental health isolation boxes, which were delivered across Sussex and Hampshire to adults and children using mental health services, women’s refuges, young offenders, older people with dementia and people with learning disabilities.

Ms Butler ordered everything for the boxes, had it delivered to her house, packed and co-ordinated them and organised their delivery – even getting plain-clothed police officers to deliver to women’s refuges.

The Duke told her: “Such a fantastic effort, it is community champions like you who have made all the difference.

“The mental health aspect of the crisis, it can’t be underestimated and it’s so important.”

Ellie Orton OBE, CEO of NHS Charities Together said: “On the day that the George Cross medal was awarded to the NHS it is extra special to be here.

“These people and their colleagues are the pride of the country. They have all sacrificed so much and it’s right that we celebrate them as a nation for everything they have done.”