Prince William and his wife Kate have praised NHS staff for handling the growing coronavirus pandemic as they avoided shaking hands 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.
William laughed and said: “Don’t shake hands!”
But he swiftly added as they posed for a picture: “We can do a photograph if we are not within a metre of each other.”
Afterwards Courtney Campbell, 32, a supervisor, laughed off her mistake: “That was so funny. I went to shake the hand. Coronavirus!
“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 Duke of Cambridge said: “The last few weeks, and more recent days, have been understandably concerning with the continuing spread of coronavirus. 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.
“Not only are NHS staff and emergency workers responding to the needs of the public, 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.
“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. It was also brilliant to see the great online tools for those with mild symptoms or worries.”
He also echoed his grandmother’s words when he added: “All of us have a part to play if we’re going to protect the most vulnerable. 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.
Euan Flood, 34, a paramedic, told them how busy they were saying: “We are getting calls one after the other. Currently we have a few hundred calls waiting to be called back, anything from a day to two, three days old.
“We are finding that people are quite understanding when we call them back. They are quite accepting that they know it’s busy, they know it’s going to be a long time. We try and get through them as quickly as we can, but safely as well.”
The duchess asked how many of the calls reflected mental health issues, to which Mr Emmerson said: “Quite a large volume. It all feeds into each other. People with mental health issues are more concerned about coronavirus and how to manage that.”
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.
Before he left the call centre, William told the staff: “Well done on you guys. It’s lovely to see you.”
Earlier this week, the duke helped the National Emergencies Trust launch an appeal for funds to tackle the coronavirus.
NET has pledged to work across a range of organisations to raise money and distribute it to those who need it most.
Their visit comes as the Queen prepared to spend longer than usual in Windsor for Easter Court, having headed there a week early from London.
She issued a message urging people to play their part in tackling the outbreak of COVID-19.
She appeared to call for people to stay at home, saying: “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 Queen also pledged the support of her family.
Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice
Vanity Fair previously reported that William and Kate would change the focus of their work over the coming weeks to address the pandemic.
The Queen will be carrying out far fewer duties, with many of her engagements postponed. Her audience with the prime minister will be held over the telephone.
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla put one of their tours on hold, and are both in the high risk category according to the government.
As the family has said they will follow government advice, this could mean they stay inside more, only going out for exercise and essential trips.