The Queen awarded the George Cross, one of her highest honors, to the NHS

queen elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth
| Credit: Mark Cuthbert/getty

Queen Elizabeth has awarded the U.K.'s public health service one of her highest honors.

On Monday she announced she had bestowed a George Cross upon the National Health Service (NHS). The award comes on the organization's 73rd anniversary and after the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

In a handwritten letter, sent from Windsor Castle and shared on the Royal Family's social media channels, Elizabeth, 95, praised the "courage, compassion and dedication" of staff, past and present.

She 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."

Queen Elizabeth II visits the Royal Windsor Horse Show 2021 at Windsor Castle on July 2, 2021 in Windsor, England
Queen Elizabeth at Royal Windsor Horse Show
| Credit: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty

The George Cross originated during WWII. It is given in recognition of "acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger." The award recognizes actions by civilians and military personnel not in the face of the enemy. Collective awards have been granted before — including to the police force in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, for the bravery of those serving, and their families, during the violence of the 'Troubles' that ended in the late 1990s.

The most recent recipient of the George Cross is Dominic Troulan, a retired British Army officer and former Royal Marine, who was awarded it in June 2017 for his actions during the 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.

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queen elizabeth, princess Anne
Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne in Scotland last week
| Credit: ANDREW MILLIGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After spending a week traveling through Scotland undertaking a variety of visits and engagements, the Queen relaxed at the Royal Windsor Horse Show over the weekend — a welcome relief after the show's postponement last year.