Knighted health service boss who led on Brexit and Covid hails NHS family

Professor Keith Willett said he was ‘honoured’ to be knighted.

Professor Keith Willett (NHS England/PA)
Professor Keith Willett (NHS England/PA)

An NHS boss who oversaw the health service’s Brexit preparations, only to be thrust into leading its Covid-19 response, has been knighted.

Professor Keith Willett, national director for emergency planning and incident response to NHS England and NHS Improvement, joins a host of scientists and health experts celebrated in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Recognised with the top honour after 40 years with the health service, Prof Willett was formerly the strategic commander for the delivery of NHS preparations as the UK left the EU.

He told the PA news agency: “I’d led the NHS preparation for Brexit. Literally up until the week before, I was then asked if I would take on responsibility for leading the response to what then was an early coronavirus we knew little about.”

But as professor of orthopaedic trauma surgery at Oxford University and a consultant surgeon, Prof Willett is used to working under pressure.

“I’ve been a trauma surgeon all through my career and so dealing with the unexpected and managing with little information and responding to incidents is what I’m professionally trained to do,” he said.

“I thought Brexit was the biggest role I’d ever been asked to take on, outside of clinical practice.

“But I have to say, clearly, the pandemic has surpassed that in terms of what it asked of everybody.”

Prof Willett said he was “honoured” to be knighted, but added: “I’m also acutely aware of the very many really good people in the NHS and wider health community who in recent times have all given so much, and for some, that’s everything.”

In January 2020, as strategic incident director, he took on the responsibility for leading the NHS response to the coronavirus pandemic across England.

“I think it’s been extremely difficult at times for everybody. For those in leadership roles it was around the uncertainty and the demand,” he said.

“For those who were at the front line, it was I’m sure much more about actually just working to maintain professional care of the patients presenting.”

He added: “The NHS as a community works as a family and that’s how it responds, everybody just went beyond what you could normally expect to support their colleagues, as well as the public and their patients.”

Prof Willett, previously made a CBE in 2016, described his role as akin to “conducting an orchestra with some of the most committed and capable players you could possibly want to bring together in the way that the NHS and the wider health community always do”.

Admitting that he felt “perhaps a little uncomfortable that I’ve been singled out”, he was full of praise for his colleagues’ actions during the pandemic.

“It was remarkable how everyone in the NHS and wider just rose to meet what was a challenge which none of us had really any appreciation of how difficult it would be,” he said.

Asked for his thoughts on the future of the NHS, he said: “The NHS is undoubtedly one of the most precious national assets and I think the collective response that we’ve seen over the pandemic has more than again demonstrated that, and I know that the public of the UK as well as the staff would hope that is recognised going forward in terms of supporting the NHS.”

The chairman of NHS England, Lord Prior, praised all those health service workers recognised for their efforts during one of its most challenging crises.

He said: “These honours are thoroughly deserved and come at a time when our hardworking staff are going above and beyond to maintain and open up all NHS services, while also continuing to respond to the pandemic and having cared for more than 400,000 seriously ill people with Covid, in hospital.

“From those working on the frontlines such as nurses, GPs and surgeons, to campaigners, researchers and digital architects, the honours recognise the diverse range of skills and roles across the NHS, and the tireless work of these individuals and the NHS as a whole.”

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