Honours in the UK are awarded by the Queen, on the advice of Government ministers. They are usually announced twice a year: New Year and on the Queen’s official birthday (the anniversary of her succession to the throne) in June.

This year, the Birthday Honours list was delayed to give more time to process nominations and include special nominations for the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The changes were announced on 20 May 2020.

This is the first time since the beginning of the current reign in 1952 that the Birthday Honours announcement has been postponed. Both the Birthday Honours list and the Covid-19 list were published on 10 October.

This Insight explains how honours are awarded and the additions as a result of Covid-19.

Who decides if someone gets an honour?

Honours in ‘orders of chivalry’ have been awarded by monarchs since the middle ages. In recent times, most honours awarded have been in the Order of the British Empire, which was established in 1917. Anyone can be nominated for an honour by a member of the public or an official body. Nominations, supported by letters of evidence, are considered by specialist subject committees (including arts and media, community and voluntary service, health, public service, and sport).

The committees are made up of senior civil servants and independent people active in the relevant field. Checks on nominees’ taxation and criminal record status are carried out to ensure they are not likely to “bring the Order into disrepute.”

Nominations approved by the committees go to an overarching main committee. Approvals are then forwarded to the Prime Minister (for UK-based recipients) and the Foreign Secretary (for nominees based abroad or in foreign service). The Ministers make recommendations for approval to the Queen. The process, from consideration of nomination to recipients being informed and a list announced, can take up to 18 months. The honours committees also make recommendations on the type and level of honour.

Why are honours awarded?

The honours system is a way to recognise people who have ‘made achievements in public life’ or ‘committed themselves to serving and helping Britain.’

Those honoured are usually deemed to have made life better for other people, or be outstanding at what they do, in their working life or as a volunteer.

In the 2019 Birthday Honours list just over 1,000 awards were made, 75% of the recipients were people who had been nominated for community work, as a professional or volunteer. This year there were 1,495 awards, including those linked to Covid-19, and 72% of the recipients were for community work.

Covid-19 related honours

For the Covid-19 honours, the guidance said nominations might be for frontline work supporting the most vulnerable and those with the virus, providing critical care, developing innovations in care, volunteering in the community or for service organisations supporting those affected.

The nominations form was shorter, and additional letters were not needed. The NHS, as an employer, also encouraged staff to nominate colleagues and provided its own form to make this as easy as possible.

On 10 October 2020, 414 awards were made at OBE, MBE and British Empire Medal level, grouped in a separate list. Most citations mentioned the Covid-19 response, including 200 health and social care professionals.

Taking less than six months, this was a very fast process. Six members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) were awarded OBEs. There has been press speculation that some awards were withheld to await the outcome of any future inquiry into handling of the pandemic.

A wide range of non-medical Covid-19 related awards were made, including MBEs to footballer Marcus Rashford for services to vulnerable children, and to fitness coach Joe Wicks, for services to fitness and charity.

Can someone still be nominated for a Covid-19 honour?

Although the special nomination process was put into place for these Birthday Honours, it’s been made clear that further awards will follow. In May, the Prime Minister said: “We anticipate that Covid-19 recognition will happen across future honours lists, reflecting the on-going work being done by so many.” The special nominations form is still available on the gov.uk website.

When will investitures take place?

Those with honours may use the title or letters after their names as soon as these have been announced and published in the official Gazettes. They don’t have to wait until an investiture. Investiture ceremonies have been postponed since March 2020.

An exception was the very unusual privilege of a personal, individual award by the Queen in the grounds of Windsor Castle on 17 July, to charity campaigner, Captain Sir Tom Moore. Personal investitures do occasionally take place, perhaps because a recipient is very ill, but these usually happen in private and are not presided over by a senior member of the Royal family.

Further reading

Honours: History and reviews, House of Commons Library.

The Royal Prerogative, House of Commons Library.

Birthday and New Year honours lists 1940-2020, The Gazette.

About the author: Hazel Armstrong is a researcher in the Commons Library, covering honours and aspects of monarchy.

Photo: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” by Defence Images is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0