The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made a morale-boosting visit to an NHS 111 call centre to highlight its vital work to manage the coronavirus outbreak. Prince William praised the health service as representing "the very best of our country and society" as he thanked staff on behalf of the royal family. And he urged the public to play their part "to protect the most vulnerable" by staying at home if a family member has symptoms and avoiding non-essential contact to prevent spreading the virus.
WATCH: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit NHS 111 call centre
Speaking after he and Kate visited the centre in Croydon, south London, the Duke 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.
READ: Prince William and Kate Middleton support the Queen's decision to change her routine
William and Kate visted the NHS 111 call centre this week
"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.
"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."
William and Kate followed health guidelines throughout their visit on Thursday, making a conscious effort to distance themselves from people they met, avoiding handshakes and twice stopping to use hand sanitiser.
When supervisor Courtney Campbell, 32, briefly forgot the rules and instinctively reached out to shake their hands, William laughed: "Don’t shake hands!" But he added, as they posed for a picture: "We can do a photograph if we are not within a metre of each other."
As they chatted to call handlers, Kate, who wore a pink trouser suit from Marks & Spencer for the outing, told them: "It's amazing. You're doing such a great job bringing everyone together and providing that, the support system for the whole public." William, himself a former Air Ambulance pilot, 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."
MORE: The latest way Princess Charlotte is taking after mum Kate Middleton
Kate and William spoke to staff about the impact of coronavirus
Tracy Pidgeon, 54, a manager currently helping with calls, said the Duke seemed nostalgic for his old job as a pilot for East Anglian Air Ambulance. "He misses the helicopter, being on the front line. He just said he misses it," she said. Asked whether the Duke might be a useful recruit, London Ambulance Service chief executive, Garrett Emmerson replied with a smile: "As he knows well, we have an air ambulance service here in London. I know that he would be welcome there any time."
As they toured the room, William met call handler Paula White, a former telephonist at Buckingham Palace who had met him when he was a baby. "Was I behaving myself? A rowdy little child?" joked the Duke. She said afterwards: "I said, 'I can't say sir – the press are here!'" Recalling her former job, she said: "I worked there when his mum was getting married."
She said Princess Diana used to go into the switchboard room, adding: "She used to be taking calls with us. I saw the ring! He [William] was just a little baby when she brought him down." Paula said of the royal couple’s visit: "It’s lovely. It's like a pat on the back. It just raises morale."
MORE: How royals mums broke palace protocol to be more hands-on and modern parents
William and Kate with NHS 111 call centre staff
The royal couple heard how the number of 111 calls to the centre has nearly quadrupled since the crisis began, from around 7,000 to 25,000 a day across London alone. And they were told its 999 service had just had the busiest three days in its history, with calls nearly doubling from 4,500 a day to 8,000.
Dr Agatha Nortley-Meshe, a GP and the assistant medical director of LAS, said the team was working "extremely hard". She added: "Within the massive volume of calls, there are a lot of people asking for advice and reassurance. But there are also some really sick people in there. It's about making sure we get people to the right place, we get people the advice they need, we get people the care they need."
"A lot of people will want to help," said the Duke. "Is there any way that the public can do their bit to help you guys out? How quickly can you train up people to become call centre volunteers?" "In terms of call handling, pretty quickly," replied Garrett.
As the royal couple left, William told staff: "Well done on you guys. It's lovely to see you."
The LAS chief executive said afterwards: "We were talking with the duke about potential future visits if we are in further stages of social distancing - we may be doing remote conferencing for events like this," he said. He added: "We are trying to get through calls as fast as we can and make sure we can identify the sickest patients and get the most urgent care to them, whether that is on the phone or with ambulance services."
People should only call 999 if they have "a very serious, potentially life-threatening emergency" he said. "Call 111 if you cannot get the advice you need from NHS online."
Make sure you never miss a ROYAL story! Sign up to our newsletter to get all of our celebrity, royal and lifestyle news delivered directly to your inbox.