The monarch joined the Prince of Wales at a small Windsor Castle ceremony with representatives of the health service.
The Queen has praised the “amazing” Covid-19 vaccine rollout as she celebrated the achievements of the NHS across the decades by awarding the institution the George Cross.
They were joined by frontline workers from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, including May Parsons, the matron who delivered the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials to Maggie Keenan on December 8 2020.
Speaking after the ceremony, NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “The last two years we’ve seen the courage, the determination and the compassion of NHS staff.
“Putting their patients before themselves, and in many cases that meant real sacrifices like spending time away from loved ones, putting themselves, every day, into dangerous and unknown situations to care for us.
“And now the pandemic is still with us, it’s not over, but we’ve got – again thanks to the incredible work of the National Health Service – we’ve got tools we can fight it with.”
She added: “For me getting the George Cross today, it’s a really timely moment to recognise what colleagues have done and also what they are still doing and doing every day.”
The Queen, who wore a day dress and moved with the aid of her now familiar walking stick, was on fine form and when told about Ms Parsons’ historic first, she made her guests laugh with the quip: “You’re still alive?”
When the nurse told the Queen: “We’re terribly, terribly proud of the vaccination roll-out, it was so successful,” she replied: “Yes it was amazing.”
And when the NHS England chief executive highlighted the tens of millions who have been jabbed, the monarch said “tremendous”.
When the Queen asked: “And what are you going to do with it?” with regards to the medal, she was told by Ms Pritchard it would go on tour of the NHS before being found a permanent home.
Each health executive from the four nations and their frontline colleague came up in turn to receive a George Cross which had been placed on a cushion carried by the Queen’s Equerry Lieutenant Colonel Tom White.
The Queen touched the cushion in a gesture to symbolise its presentation, after first having announced the award of the George Cross last year.
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Vernon, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office with responsibility for organising ceremonial events, read out the George Cross citation at the start of the ceremony.
He said: “It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful Nation, that the George Cross is awarded 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.”
Guests included NHS Wales chief executive Judith Paget and Dr Ami Jones, an Army reservist and Intensive Care Consultant with Aneurin Bevan University Health Board.
Caroline Lamb, chief executive of NHS Scotland, received the George Cross with Eleanor Grant a palliative care nurse from Specialist University Hospital Wishaw, NHS Lanarkshire.
Peter May, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and chief executive of Health and Social Care Northern Ireland, was joined by Sister Joanna Hogg, from Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital’s Emergency Department.
She played a lead role in setting up Covid-19 drive-through testing pods at her hospital and later managed its vaccination centre.
When the Queen was told about Ms Hogg’s work she told her “you must have been tremendously busy too” and she sympathised with the role of the palliative nurse working in Scotland telling her “a difficult thing to do, to be able to look after people”.
The monarch lightened the mood, after the chief executive of NHS Scotland revealed she had been told not to put the George Cross in her handbag.
She told the representatives from Wales: “This is your George Cross, now I know you won’t put it in your handbag.”
After the presentations the recipients posed for a group photograph with the Queen and Charles and she made them laugh when she said: “Don’t look too miserable.”
The George Cross was instituted by her father George VI in September 1940 during the height of the Blitz.
It is granted in recognition of “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most courage in circumstances of extreme danger” and recognises actions by civilians and military personnel not in the face of the enemy.
The award of the George Cross by the Queen is made on the advice of the George Cross Committee and the Prime Minister, and this marks only the third occasion on which it has been awarded to a collective body, country or organisation, rather than an individual.