NHS communications professional Donna Webster has been awarded a BEM (British Empire Medal) for services to the NHS during COVID-19, specifically working tirelessly to support staff from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

As evidence emerged about the disproportionate impact that coronavirus was having on people from BAME backgrounds, Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust’s (SASH) deputy head of communications and chair of its BAME staff network, launched a series of proactive measures to ensure staff were supported and listened to.


This award is recognition of the variety of support Donna spearheaded at SASH, which has 1,500 staff (around a third of its organisation) from BAME backgrounds. From organising weekly listening forums during the pandemic, to running regular classes for colleagues who speak English as a second language, Donna has prioritised supporting her colleagues throughout the biggest challenge the NHS has faced. The award is given to people who provide a ‘hands-on’, innovative service that makes a significant difference to their community.

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Donna Webster

Donna said: “I feel incredibly honoured to have been awarded a British Empire Medal. It has been a privilege to work alongside our diverse community of colleagues and find new ways to provide accessible information to suit different needs. NHS communications teams mostly work behind the scenes, and I want to acknowledge their dedication and collaborative spirit. This is the most amazing experience and I want to thank everyone who has supported me.”

Donna organised and ran weekly listening forums for staff, ensuring her colleagues’ concerns were heard and acted on. Recognising that many staff spoke English as a second language, she created a suite of targeted communication materials for porters, cleaners and housekeepers that turned dense written guidelines into visual instructions showing staff simple ways to adhere to infection control and personal protective equipment (PPE) guidance. This helped to reassure staff and ensure they felt safer than before. The suite of materials was shared across the NHS as an example of best practice and was featured on national news.

Donna’s support for front line staff who speak English as a second language extended to working with colleagues to run regular classes that helped with communication skills, enabling people to expand their support networks. The value of the classes increased during the pandemic when opportunities for other forms of networking were restricted and many colleagues felt isolated from their friends and family. Colleagues who attended the classes formed close bonds and made great friendships and support networks while improving their English skills. The classes have been so successful that the first 14 graduates have since been accepted onto a course at East Surrey College to continue their development.

In addition to this work, Donna created simple virtual groups that enabled people to be much more connected to colleagues in the hospital, and to raise questions and concerns that could then be addressed. These simple but effective solutions helped staff who speak English as a second language to get quick and easy information about where to access vital support or even how to get groceries at the end of a long shift. This was a big challenge for NHS staff at the first peak of the pandemic and those whose first language is not English would have found it even harder without Donna’s support.  Since January 2021 Donna has also taken on the additional role of BAME Staff Network Chair which is a great testament to the confidence placed in her across SASH and her willingness to champion this important area of work.

Michael Wilson CBE, chief executive of SASH, said: “I am delighted that Donna has been recognised for all her hard work. She has provided exceptional support for her colleagues alongside everything else she does for our trust and our patients. It has been a great privilege to have had the opportunity to work with her.”