At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, when supermarket shelves were suddenly bare, delivery driver Geoff Norris decided he couldn’t let elderly and vulnerable people go without their groceries.
“Just before [lockdown] started, you noticed all the delivery slots were being booked,” he recalls.
Mr Norris, 53, from Cambridgeshire, began to use his own car – on the days he wasn’t working, at Asda in Wisbech – to make sure elderly and vulnerable customers still got their shopping.
He rallied his driver colleagues to volunteer their own time to pick shopping, go through the tills, and deliver it in their own vehicles on a Sunday.
With the help of his wife Vanessa and daughter Anna, 22, he took orders by email and phone – or customers contacted the store directly.
“I think we managed to do it for about 15 weeks,” said Mr Norris.
“It was hard but it was very rewarding seeing the gratitude you got from people that didn’t think they could get anything.”
Mr Norris is one of the hundreds of “unsung heroes” instrumental in the UK’s response to the pandemic, who are being celebrated in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
He said he was “absolutely gobsmacked” to be awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) – one of 414 honours awarded for their Covid-19 contributions out of the total 1,495 recipients.
Another supermarket worker, Julie Cook, 56, who works at a store in Aberdare, south Wales, also becomes a BEM after giving up her spare time to ensure a care home could get vital supplies.
She took their shopping list each week and would organise everything so it was ready for care home staff to come and collect.
Ms Cook, who has worked at the store for 21 years, said: “I had to read and re-read it to see this was an official honour. I never imagined I’d be honoured like this.
“I was just jumping up and down when I found out, as I was so excited.”
The honours system
Commonly awarded ranks:
- Companion of Honour – Limited to 65 people. Recipients wear the initials CH after their name
- Knight or Dame
- CBE – Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- OBE – Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire
- BEM – British Empire Medal
Guide to the Honours
Health and social care workers make up 14% of the total of this year’s list and some went beyond their day jobs to answer a call of duty.
One of those is NHS nurse Ashleigh Linsdell, who has been made an OBE after what she calls “a really naïve idea” became a national effort to make scrubs for front-line workers.
It started when supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) ran short at her A&E department and she used her own money to buy fabric and make scrubs for colleagues.
The 30-year-old, from Cambridge, then set up a Facebook page and created For The Love of Scrubs, which soon expanded beyond all recognition.
Two months on, the movement had 148 sub-groups around the country to help organise local activity.
More than 70,000 volunteers helped make 1.2 million items of PPE for front-line workers, and another million face coverings.
People initially self-funded before a fundraising campaign raised more than £1m to buy fabric to make the PPE.
The operation was run from her home, with material cut there and sent to volunteers to make into scrubs.
Mrs Linsdell, who now works as a community specialist nurse in East Anglia, said: “I had no idea that it would snowball to where we are now, but we have helped hundreds of thousands of front-line workers to be safe in their practice.
“It’s phenomenal. We wouldn’t be where we are without our thousands of volunteers.”
When rail services began being scaled back during the lockdown, train driver Jolene Miller, who had previously worked as a paramedic, felt she couldn’t “sit here and do nothing when I have skills that I could use elsewhere”.
The 42-year-old, from Ingleby Barwick, Teesside, was given permission to take temporary leave by Northern Rail to volunteer for the NHS.
She worked for more than three months at Darlington Memorial Hospital, assessing patients as they came in for treatment.
Mrs Miller said she was proud to receive a BEM, but remained well aware that friends were still working for the NHS, “day in, day out”.
Another person who wanted to offer their help to the NHS was Glasgow restaurant owner David Maguire, 62, who gave out free meals to health workers, as well as vulnerable people.
He was inspired on the first day of lockdown by his some of his customers – nurses from the Beatson Cancer Centre at Gartnavel Hospital, whose hospital canteen had been forced to close.
The restaurant began making more than 800 free meals daily for the next 11 weeks, during which time he lived in his garage because his wife was shielding.
“The restaurant kind of changed […] to a massive food production centre,” he said.
He said he was “really pleased” to be made an MBE but stressed it was a team effort and without his head chef Steven Caputa and employee Melody Whitley it “wouldn’t have lasted a week”.
Millions of pounds were raised for charity during the crisis, and fundraisers are among those celebrated by this year’s list.
Dabirul Islam Choudhury, from Bow, east London, has become an OBE after raising more than £420,000 for coronavirus relief.
He said he was inspired by another 100-year-old, Captain Sir Tom Moore, who captured the nation’s hearts by walking lengths of his garden for charity and ended up raising almost £33m.
Mr Choudhury, who turns 101 in January, walked almost 1,000 laps of his garden while fasting for Ramadan.
He said he was “proud” to be recognised in the list, adding that he “thanked everybody from the bottom of my heart”.
His son Atique Choudhury, 57, said: “Where we are from in Bangladesh, we don’t get much recognition for the work that we do, so this is for all the people who contributed towards my dad’s success and all the victims of Covid-19.”
Former pub landlord Jay Flynn, 38, from Darwen, Lancashire, was also honoured for his fundraising efforts – after his virtual pub quizzes unexpectedly went viral.
After the lockdown shut pubs and bars across the nation, he arranged what was intended as a small event for his friends and regular quizzers.
He didn’t realise he had left his Facebook event public, rather than private, and instead of the expected 30 or 40 players, it attracted interest from thousands of people.
More than 180,000 people played along with the free quiz at its peak – from as far afield as New Zealand and the US.
He raised more than £750,000 for charity through donations, with one edition hosted by Stephen Fry in May, raising £140,000 for Alzheimer’s Research UK.
When Mr Flynn found out he had been made an MBE he said he “nearly fell backwards off my chair”.
“I’m completely overwhelmed and honoured. I never thought I would achieve anything in my life.
“I don’t think it will sink in until I go to the ceremony. I’m blown away.”