Rumours swirled today after the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh unexpectedly cancelled their plans to travel to Norfolk for their Christmas break, because they are unwell.
The 90-year-old monarch and Prince Philip, her 95-year-old husband, had been due to catch a train from King’s Cross station, London, to the town of King’s Lynn in eastern England, a short drive from the Sandringham estate where she resides until early February.
Royal security was out in force at both stations but just minutes before her expected arrival to catch the 10.44am out of the capital, police were told to stand down.
At King’s Lynn, where the Queen and Philip were due to arrive at 12.21pm, officers who had cordoned off an area ready for their car were also told to leave.
Photographers waiting to snap the couple at the London station were abruptly told, “It’s not happening now,” just 30 minutes before the train was due to leave.
After several hours of speculation Buckingham Palace confirmed: “The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh have heavy colds, and so have decided not to travel to Sandringham today.”
They are still expected to make it to Sandringham in time for Christmas.
But by the time the palace responded in mid-afternoon, speculation was buzzing through British media and across social media about the elderly couple’s health.
The panicky response was heightened by the chaotic way the news was managed.
Newsrooms around the UK will remain on high alert over the festive period, despite the palace’s attempt to calm the waters.
The Queen and Philip were surrounded by their family yesterday when they hosted their annual Christmas lunch for dozens of relatives at Buckingham Palace.
Despite their advancing years, they appear to remain in good health and have missed few official engagements in recent years due to illness.
The Queen was treated for the symptoms of gastroenteritis in 2013 and stayed overnight in a private hospital being assessed by doctors, and cancelled an official trip to Rome.
In June last year Buckingham Palace took the unusual step of confirming the Queen’s visit to a private hospital for a routine medical checkup following speculation on social media about the state of her health.
Philip joked about his good health last month during a visit with the Queen to London’s Francis Crick Institute – a major biomedical research centre – where he asked a flu expert: “Why haven’t I had flu for the last 40 years?”
In May an undisclosed minor ailment forced him to miss commemorations marking the anniversary of the World War I naval battle of Jutland in Orkney, north of Scotland.
In recent years the Queen has begun to make a number of concessions to her advancing years including cutting out long-haul travel and getting other family members to undertake investitures, which involve her standing for more than an hour at a time.
The palace announced yesterday she is cutting her workload by stepping down as patron of more than 20 British organisations at the end of the year.
She will end her formal association with the groups – just as Philip broke ties with some of his patronages when he turned 90 in 2011.
The move is likely to be seen as a commonsense decision that acknowledges the Queen’s advancing years, but the palace stressed she was still patron of more than 600 organisations.
The patronages of organisations including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Barnardo’s, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (Wimbledon) and the Rugby Football Union will be taken by other members of the family.
Two years ago Prince Charles stepped in for his mother at a ceremony to install knights of the ancient Order of the Bath at Westminster Abbey after she admitted a steep flight of steps would be too much for her.
And this year a temporary handrail was installed in the steep steps outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen and Philip to use at a service to celebrate her 90th birthday.
London is on high alert after the Berlin Christmas market attack, with road closures in place for the Changing of the Guard.
One of the palace’s most time-honoured traditions was encircled by an extra layer of security.
Traffic restrictions were announced by the Metropolitan Police. Armed police guarded an additional barrier at the mouth of several routes which feed on to the Queen Victoria Memorial outside the palace’s main gates.
Tree-lined Constitution Hill and The Mall, two of London’s most recognisable streets, were vacant but for a handful of police vehicles.