For the past three years the Sun has held the “Who Cares Wins” awards ceremony to honour the work of NHS front-line staff and the everyday unsung heroes who support them. It is always an evening of emotional stories of selflessness and in some cases unimaginable bravery, in front of a host of celebrities, royalty and the Prime Minister.
This year’s event, on Sunday 19 September, was set against the backdrop of a declaration by Boris Johnson that the Conservatives are “the party of the NHS”. On 7 September, Johnson pledged a huge £12bn tax hike to help solve the NHS backlog that was caused by the pandemic, and the ongoing crisis in social care. The Sun described the announcement on its front page as “Bojo’s Biggest Gamble”.
Gamble in the sense that raising taxes is an un-Tory-like move to make, and one that could cost Johnson Conservative votes at the next election, especially since he hadn’t indicated there would be wide-ranging reform of the NHS to go with it. Sun readers will want to be certain that waiting lists and social care provision really do improve.
A funding boost for the NHS
As I prepared for our awards ceremony, attended this year by Prince William, David Beckham, Rod Stewart and other A-listers, I wondered what kind of reception the Prime Minister would get from the nurses, doctors, paramedics and nominees in the room.
The morning of the awards show, I feared that Johnson might pull out after we learned that his mother had sadly passed away. In fact, that week he continued to host cabinet and, as promised, turned up at London’s Camden Roundhouse to present an award. He made a speech that was not entirely free of politics as he handed out the prize for Groundbreaking Discovery to the scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine. Johnson said: “Just as the NHS has looked after us, we will look after the NHS. We have announced a huge catch-up programme, the biggest in history, £36bn [will go] into repairing the damage that Covid has done and fix the long-standing problems of social care at the same time.” Another Tory PM may have expected a few heckles at such an event, but there were none.
Johnson heard first-hand the emotional tales of real people going about their jobs in inspiring ways during the pandemic, such as the seven-year-old girl with muscular dystrophy who raised £100,000 after being inspired by the work of Captain Tom.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, was unable to attend at the 11th hour – the lively shadow minister Jess Phillips took his place, alongside the Sun’s official event partners NHS Charities Together (Sun readers donated £1m for the charity during the pandemic). Many of our readers are swing voters, who backed Tony Blair during the New Labour years and are now largely supportive of the Tory government. If Labour wants to win these readers over, the core of its agenda should be focusing on the things that matter to them – such as the cost of living, helping their children get on in life, and owning a home. That is how Labour could make itself relevant again, but instead the party is spending all its energy on a row over the rules to elect the next leader.
Celebrating unsung heroes
On the evening of the awards ceremony my job was to escort Prince William around and introduce him and the PM to the nominees. No one can help but be humbled by so many stories of self-sacrifice – such as the care home team who spent 12 weeks sleeping in bunk beds away from their families to reduce the risk of passing on Covid to residents.
When the parents of Folajimi “Jimi” Olubunmi-Adewole, who died in April aged 20 after he jumped into the River Thames to save a woman who was drowning, went on stage to accept their son’s award, his mother said she loved Prince William and wanted to take a picture with him. The prince immediately asked me to make sure that he met Jimi’s parents on his way out. As he left, I whisked him out to meet them (along the way doing a very unroyal thing: posing for selfies). Jimi’s mother broke down and hugged him. Visibly moved, he vowed to help, and gave both traumatised parents an evening they will never forget.
The night came with some laughs, too – not least when Channel 4 host Davina McCall accidentally swore when she messed up one of her lines, apologising profusely to our royal guest, who laughed heartily.
My week finished on a high when News UK announced that Piers Morgan was signing a global deal to present TV shows and write opinion columns for the Sun, which is, of course, where it all started for him.
Forget Ronaldo, this is the comeback of the year.
Victoria Newton is editor-in-chief of the Sun
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play