South Tyneside's amazing key workers honoured with Freedom of the Borough
South Tyneside’s local NHS, care services and key workers have been officially awarded the Freedom of the Borough for their bravery and sacrifice during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Town hall bosses agreed in 2020 that key workers should receive the highest honour the council could bestow, however, with coronavirus still at its height it was not felt appropriate at the time.
At an extraordinary meeting of South Tyneside Council on March 9, 2023, councillors voted to confer the Freedom of the Borough to those who served on the front line of the Covid-19 crisis.
Representatives of several key worker sectors were present at the meeting, from emergency services and utility companies to care homes, domiciliary care, the NHS and education.
Due to limited space in the council chamber’s public gallery, South Tyneside Council also recorded and live-streamed the ceremony via YouTube.
Councillor Tracey Dixon, leader of South Tyneside Council, opened the meeting by paying tribute to the NHS, key workers and the care sector for their “selfless service and dedication to the people of South Tyneside”.
Cllr Dixon continued: “Covid was the biggest global health crisis of our lifetime, a fast-moving, ever-evolving situation which demanded the health, care, public sector and those providing essential services stepping up to the plate.
“Individuals working with rapidly changing circumstances with extended working hours and often working flexibly in new or different roles.
“Whilst the Government announced major policy changes nationally, solutions were developed locally.
“Our collective priorities were keeping our communities safe, getting help to those who needed it most and continuing to deliver the essential services that residents relied on more than ever.
“The resilience, strength and courage of our NHS, care and key workers will never be forgotten”.
Several representatives spoke on behalf of the health sector at the ceremony including Dr Matthew Walmsley, a local GP who was chair of the South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) during the pandemic.
Dr Walmsley, who also played a key role in the borough’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, said the pandemic was marked by “rapid changes” in working practices and thanked colleagues for “always being ready” and “reacting with courage and humanity”.
Dr Shaz Wahid, South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust’s executive medical director, spoke on behalf of NHS workers at the council meeting.
Dr Wahid said: “There’s no doubt that we have faced the most testing times over the last few years but equally, Covid-19 has shone a light on what makes us strong as a local community.
“Care, compassion, resilience and a willingness to pull together in a crisis.
“These are strengths which were embodied by our amazing NHS staff throughout the pandemic, both in our hospitals and out in the community.
“Our staff have continued to give outstanding care each and every day to patients and their families, raising a smile at times when it felt like there was nothing but fear, as well as providing the much-needed support, dignity and reassurance during the darkest moments”.
Dori Dima, speaking on behalf of the care sector and care homes, said the pandemic was a time of frustration, long hours and loss but that the sector became a “family” and close community during the period.
Chris Noble, also speaking on behalf of the care sector and specifically domiciliary care, added that workers’ “selfless courage and compassion had been an inspiration to us all”.
She added: “As we move forward, let us not forget the lessons we have learned during the pandemic and let us continue and value and support our care workers who are the backbone of our society”.
Inspector Gary Querry, speaking on behalf of Northumbria Police and other blue light services, reflected on the “unprecedented demand” and other challenges that arose during the pandemic.
This included some people “deciding to weaponise Covid” by threatening to cough or spit at officers and on several occasions “carrying out those very threats”.
Insp Querry added: “But officers kept coming to work, they kept standing forward and they kept serving the public that they serve today”.
Steve Price also spoke on behalf of South Tyneside’s schools, teaching and support staff, and praised their efforts during the pandemic.
This ranged from looking after vulnerable children and children of ‘critical workers’ to face-to-face and home visits and remote learning, as well as delivering learning packs, food packs and emotional support to children and their families.
Mr Price said: “Finally I wish to pay tribute to the true heroes, that’s our children and the young people who faced the pandemic with true South Tyneside grit and fortitude.
“They aren’t survivors, they’re conquerors and on that note […] those best qualities of humanity, kindness and love, really can conquer all”.
Councillor Pat Hay, Mayor of South Tyneside, said it was important to recognise the wide range of key workers and professionals who played “critical and vital roles” during the pandemic.
This included transport workers, utility workers, funeral directors, logistic workers, social workers, frontline council workers across a range of services, as well as voluntary and community sector workers, volunteers and more.
Cllr Hay added: “We’re grateful to and seek to honour today each and every one of you, every person who identifies themselves as a key worker, and contributed to that enormous effort over the recent years.”
The ceremonial Freedom of the Borough scroll has been put on display in South Shields Town Hall and paper copies are available for key workers to collect from the town hall.
The Freedom of the Borough ceremony is also available to watch on YouTube via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hO3NbeS4tJc