Richard Berthelsen: How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Royals

Richard Berthelsen: How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Royals

Like most families, the Royal Family was impacted in both in their private and working lives throughout 2020. The Palace Gates did not protect them more than anyone else.

The pandemic featured prominently in the Queen’s Christmas Message, although it was never mentioned by name. But visual images of the response and what has happened this year was not lost on anyone.

2020 was the year in which the Queen addressed the Commonwealth on two major occasions – in addition to her annual Christmas speech. These statements both reflected the sombre nature of the year and were the first time the Sovereign has addressed the public this often since the Second World War.

The events of 2020 rival the impact of the last global conflict for those that remember, and the parallels were obvious for The Queen’s generation. Although for many, this time the call is to stay home and do nothing rather than to sign up to fight.

At the start of the pandemic, the Prince of Wales contracted COVID-19, likely from public engagements undertaken in March. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh isolated themselves at Windsor Castle, moving to other residences throughout the year, almost as usual. The recent news that Prince William also had a case of the virus at the outset of the pandemic was startling.

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While many criticized him for not going public at the time, the possibility of adding to the sense of anxiety was no doubt a prevailing concern, given that his father, Prince Charles, had the virus, and the U.K. Prime Minister was also severely sick. Traditionally, members of the Royal Family have been accorded some privacy in health matters, but Prince William’s proximity to the throne makes his health a matter of public interest.

The traditional events in the Royal diary for 2020 were thrown into upheaval following the March Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey, one of the last major traditional events which took place. Recently, commentators have tallied up royal engagements at the end of the year as well under 50 per cent of the norm. The major public ceremonies of the year such as Trooping the Colour and Remembrance Day were but a shadow of their usual conduct, with no opportunity for crowds.

Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex left England in March for the U.S. via Canada and have been unable to return, although they play no role now in public life as working members of the Royal Family.

The Royal Family, like so many others in business and government, quickly pivoted to a new reality. Virtual meetings were the norm and members of the public heard the voices of many members of the royal family in a spontaneous way while seeing them at home in a way which was unimaginable. It has, no doubt, unusual for the Royals who have schedules planned years in advance to have been unable to visit charities, patronages, regiments, and the Armed Forces.

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Their role is to provide a sense of unity and focus for the thanks of a grateful nation to those providing essential services and community support. By year’s end, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall as well as the Cambridges managed to find a way to get out and about with people in a distanced way – through creative approaches such as the use of the Royal Train for a tour of several cities in all parts of the U.K. The Cambridges even managed a Zoom call with staff in a BC hospital.

By year’s end, the Palace found a way to host virtual audiences for newly arrived diplomats and political figures. But it has yet to find a way to host investitures (aside from Colonel Sir Tom) of the various honours which were published later than usual this year and will also be announced later this week to mark the New Year.

The Queen’s Christmas message this year was interspersed not with public ceremonies and many happy times but showed the working Royal Family online connecting like most office workers.

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The use of footage of the Queen laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was both highly symbolic of the year and dramatic as it was the first time Her Majesty had been seen in public protected by a mask. The moving reference to this memorial of a soldier of the Great War in the Queen’s seasonal message lent further parallel to comparisons with wartime.

At the closing of her broadcast, the image of National Health Service workers singing in St. George’s Hall at Windsor Castle was a poignant reminder of the identities of the warriors in this war.

For a venerable and ancient institution, it was a dramatic year of shifting priorities, readjusted agendas, and health scares. But the essential point of the Monarchy in the modern age and the Queen as head of the nation remains.

The Royal role in promoting unity and steady calm while graciously and apolitically giving thanks has never been more important.

The Queen and her family continue to focus on and acknowledge those who have given so much, so that others might recover and enjoy good health and a return to some normalcy in the year ahead.

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