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Captain Tom Moore inspired millions. The NHS inspired him

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Captain Sir Tom Moore in Marston Moretaine, Bedford, September 2020. Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Every death in a pandemic is tragic, and every loss is mourned. But even in these days when so many families are grieving, there is something particularly cruel about the news of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s death, shortly after contracting Covid.

The 100-year-old former soldier, and his indomitable efforts to raise money for NHS charities, by making laps of his garden on a walking frame, were a rare ray of light in last year’s gloom. It was his optimism, as much as the quiet stoicism often found in war veterans who have seen what he must have seen, that captured imaginations. His constant refrain that the sun would eventually come out, that tomorrow would be better, that together we could achieve miracles, resonated at a time when people sorely needed to hear it.

But he also did something invaluable to shift perceptions of older people and their place in society, during a pandemic that saw some ugly prejudices about the value of older people’s lives compared with younger ones spill into the open. He was physically frail, yet evidently had so much to give. In his determination and his selflessness, he put many people a fraction of his age to shame. To watch him take those last effortful steps of his sponsored walk, accompanied towards the end by a guard of honour made up by serving soldiers, was to see the years peel back and reveal the younger man he must have been and still remained.

“I come from Yorkshire,” he told the Observer, when asked if it had exhausted him. “We don’t give up.” When he was knighted by the Queen in July, there was something terribly poignant about the meeting of contemporaries; her quiet constancy finding an echo in his. He embodied the slogan used by a younger generation of army veterans to encourage ex-soldiers to volunteer during the pandemic, or engage in public life: stand up, serve again.

Many ordinary people have, of course, done extraordinary things during the course of this pandemic, and Captain Tom was always quick to downplay his efforts and praise the heroism of others. He neither sought nor expected fame; when he originally set out, aged 99, to keep himself mobile and raise a modest £1,000, his family had imagined that at best his efforts might make their local paper. In the end, his story went global, helping raise almost £39m for NHS Charities Together.

But if people around the world were inspired by his efforts, he in turn was clearly inspired by the NHS, to which he constantly professed his gratitude. He was of that generation of Britons who still vividly remember the days before its creation, when getting sick meant worrying about the doctor’s bill as well as the prognosis. He marvelled at the care he himself received through his life, most recently for skin cancer and for a broken hip which shook his confidence in walking, as well as for the nurses caring for his late second wife after she succumbed to dementia.

His desire to give something back was a testament to the place the NHS holds in so many British hearts as well as to his own character. When the news came at the weekend that he had gone into hospital, having been ill for some weeks with pneumonia and then tested positive for Covid, a nation hoped against hope that he would be spared. But that was not to be.

Yet his legacy lives on in every patient cared for, every individual giving their best during this pandemic, and every hope for a brighter tomorrow that future generations may live to see.