The Duke of Cambridge headed on an unannounced trip to Northern Ireland on the day he would have taken part in a thanksgiving service for emergency crews

By Simon Perry
September 09, 2020 08:51 AM
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Prince William traveled across the sea to Northern Ireland for a surprise trip on Wednesday.

The prince, 38, paid a special visit to frontline workers and emergency staffers in Belfast to praise them for the work they have done during the coronavirus pandemic. His visit marks the first time he has ventured over the water from mainland Britain since the crisis struck in March.

He began the day at the city's Police College where he met officers and staff taking part in the force’s Wellbeing Volunteer Training course — a bespoke emergency services peer support program that trains Wellbeing Volunteers to support colleagues suffering from mental health issues by using shared experiences and understanding of common difficulties faced by those within the sector.

Prince William talking to police officers in Belfast
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In addition to talking to those from the police service, he also met with representatives from Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and heard about their experiences with mental health and discussed the important role that peer support training can play for those working in the emergency services.

Prince William
Tim Rooke/Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage

Former air ambulance pilot William discussed with the heads of the area’s emergency services how the sector has been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, and thanked them for their invaluable work in keeping their communities safe during this time.

He then visited Cavehill Country Park where he met with the Community Rescue Service (CRS) — a charitable search and rescue group operated by volunteers from communities across Northern Ireland.

William heard about how the CRS conduct inland water, bike and boat rescue services, and he watched volunteers take part in a missing persons search training exercise.

Keeping up an important theme of the day – and one close to William’s heart — he also spoke to CRS members about the mental health of emergency responders and the efforts that the organization has made to support volunteers’ wellbeing both during and after rescue operations.

Prince William
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William was handed an honorary CRS jacket and cap – complete with HRH by the logo. Sean McCarry, director of CRS, told him he was now part of their volunteer family and the prince replied, “Thank you. I feel part of the family.”

The prince's visit came a day after he convened the first meeting of the Emergency Responder Senior Leader Board — an initiative to bring together leaders from across all of the U.K.’s emergency services on the issue of mental health. It will promote collaborative working across the nation’s emergency services to ensure that all emergency responders receive the mental health support they need.

In a speech at the Police College, William said, "Each and every day, people from teams across the blue light community are called to the scenes of dreadful incidents.  But as you care for us in our time of need, so too must we ensure that we are there for you when you need it the most. We must ensure that you have the right support in place each and every day."

"And I know first hand, that even in routine circumstances, those of you on the frontline can face immense challenges that can naturally have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health."

Prince William
Tim Rooke/Shutterstock

His office says William's commitment to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the emergency services community stems from "having witnessed first-hand the challenges that emergency responders face on a daily basis during his roles as both an Air Ambulance and RAF Search and Rescue pilot."

In his speech, he added, "There has never been a cross-sector mental health forum of this kind, to share learnings and best practice on how best to support staff."

"I was encouraged and heartened about their desire for tangible and lasting change – with new and better collaboration and training, which could certainly draw inspiration from the peer support programme here in Northern Ireland. In February of last year, Catherine and I met with a group of your PSNI colleagues at Hillsborough Castle to hear about their experiences and the unique set of policing and safety challenges that they face."

"We were struck then, as I am now, by your steadfast commitment to helping others. You are a testament to the blue light community across our country, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do."

The visit on Wednesday comes after his role in an online thanksgiving service, which took place on September 4 in honor of frontline workers. The event had been scheduled to have taken place in the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, but it was canceled due to the pandemic.

During the service, former air ambulance pilot William sent his thanks from his family for the "sacrifices" made by emergency responders and their families. “Having had the privilege of working alongside emergency responders, I’ve always been struck by the remarkable can-do attitude in the face of even the gravest emergencies. They showcase the very best our country has to offer," he said.

Tim Rooke/Shutterstock

On Monday, William released an open letter in honor of air ambulance week, in which he said, “Whether you are part of the critical care team bringing vital medical support to patients when every second counts; an engineer who ensures that crews can be safely deployed at a moment’s notice; or a volunteer working to keep the service running, the country owes you an enormous debt of gratitude.”

September 9 has been designated 999 day, which takes its name from the emergency number used in the U.K. for police, fire, ambulance and coastguard.

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Wednesday's visit was the latest move by William to honor his former colleagues in the emergency services. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, he has undertaken visits and made video calls to those in the various emergency teams. Meanwhile, he and wife Kate Middleton’s Royal Foundation is also supporting a key helpline for frontline workers.

Earlier this year, before coronavirus and the lockdown that followed, Kate also headed to Northern Ireland as part of her royal work. She spent a morning in February meeting with locals about her new mission in support of early childhood development. She toured a farm in Newtownards before she spoke to local parents and grandparents about their experiences of raising young children.

The royal mom of three wanted to use the visit to spread the news of her key research on childhood development and care.