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During a surprise trip to Belfast, the Duke of Cambridge has shared his thoughts on his children’s return to school.

“I think every parent is breathing a sigh of relief that school has started again,” he said. “Five months – it’s been wonderful, but it’s been a long five months.”

Showing empathy for people’s fears about the ongoing pandemic, William added, “This has already been an extraordinary year. The months ahead will no doubt be uncertain and, at some points, scary.”

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Prince George, seven, and Princess Charlotte, five, were expected back at Thomas’s Battersea last week. Younger brother Prince Louis, two, will remain under the watchful eye of the Duchess of Cambridge and nanny Maria Borrallo.

The family returned to Kensington Palace in London after spending an idyllic summer at their Norfolk home where they’ve been based since the start of lockdown.

William’s trip to Northern Ireland marked Emergency Services Day. He started his visit at the city’s police training college where he met serving blue light responders and thanked them for their dedication.

After making a quick outfit change into something more comfortable, he then moved on to Cave Hill Country Park where he took part in a wellbeing workshop.

As a former RAF Search and Rescue pilot for East Anglian Air Ambulance, the 38-year-old royal knows only too well the harsh emotional impact of the work.

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Reflecting on his own experiences, he admitted that he was consumed by sorrow at times, saying, “For me it was the sadness, I really felt the sadness. I’d absorb the jobs I’d gone to. Sadly, with the air ambulance you get a lot of deaths and I didn’t realise [the impact]. I would go to the next one and the next one.”

He also hinted at the full weight of the emotions he felt “first hand” in his role as a helicopter pilot, describing how the “immense challenges” faced can “have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health”.

The duke also elaborated on his experiences on emergency call outs in a deeply personal letter addressed to Air Ambulances UK. Written to mark the start of Air Ambulance Week, he said, “I worked several times on very traumatic jobs involving children.”

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Meanwhile, William pledged his support for ensuring the mental health needs of emergency staff are met. He continued, “We’ve got to somehow change that culture where we feel it’s okay to say, ‘Listen, this was horrendous, I really didn’t enjoy seeing that, it was really brutal.’”

He also acknowledged how people’s attitudes towards mental health have changed for the better, revealing that in the early days it was tough persuading famous people to speak openly about their struggles. “Six or seven years ago, not one celebrity wanted to talk about it in public… and now look at it,” he said.

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