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Press releases

Who pays for your wheelchair?

British Red Cross

5 min read Partner content

If you come a cropper and need a wheelchair, your best bet is to either get injured just a little or quite a lot. Confused? You should be.

Here are three interesting health facts you probably don’t know:

  1. If you twist your ankle or get a small mobility injury, hospitals in the UK have to provide you with a ‘minor aid’ – such as crutches or a walking frame.
  2. If you have a serious illness or injury that will mean long-term use of a wheelchair, hospitals are similarly obliged to provide the equipment. But…
  3. If you need a wheelchair for a ‘short-term’ ailment (officially, anything lasting less than six months), then good luck. No official body has any responsibility to help.


That’s a pretty huge gap in the system. It means that – if you’re facing weeks of immobility following a badly broken a leg, serious operation or debilitating illness – there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get a wheelchair.

And in a curious way, it’s partly due to the way British Red Cross and the NHS have evolved during the last century.

No guarantees

Surprised? A quick explanation might help. Following World War One (long before the NHS even existed), the Red Cross started providing short-term loans of wheelchairs for both injured servicemen and the general population.

It was an immediate success – and over the next 20 years, the service grew quickly. By the time the NHS was established in 1948, we were already the go-to organisation for wheelchair loans. Having plenty of other priorities to deal with, the NHS largely left this job to us.

Since then, the Red Cross and other voluntary sector organisations have continued to deal with the overwhelming majority of people temporarily needing a wheelchair. (By 2012, only 24 out of 151 NHS wheelchair services made any provision at all for short-term need.)

Wheels of fortune

Today, the Red Cross mobility aids service loans out 75,000 wheelchairs each year all across the UK (except in London, sorry, but we’re trying to fix that).

In fact, our teams are often based directly in hospitals and medical centres, where they work closely with medical staff in identifying who needs help.

The benefits of such partnerships are obvious. Patients are discharged earlier, freeing up much needed bed space. Our wheelchairs also help people become more independent at home, and to make follow-up medical appointments.

In short, the service is a big help to the NHS and local authorities.

Valued service

But sadly, there is quite a big glitch in the current system. Perhaps precisely because the service has grown so organically and higgledy-piggledy over decades, how the Red Cross works with statutory bodies across the country often doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So, for example, the Welsh government currently gives the Red Cross a substantial amount each year to help fund the mobility aids service, in recognition of its value.

Similarly, health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland each commit a percentage of their budget to ‘voluntary providers’ – of which the Red Cross is by far the largest.

Inconsistent approach

The situation is less promising in Scotland, where no concrete assistance as such is offered to the Red Cross. But it’s in England that things get really interesting.

Besides offering no financial assistance, in several areas the NHS actually charge the Red Cross thousands of pounds to rent the hospital rooms from which they deliver the mobility aids service.

Let’s just run past that one again. The Red Cross is being charged by the NHS to hire hospital space from which it provides a service that materially helps the NHS.

‘Distressing situations’

Such a hotch-potch approach inevitably has an impact on the Red Cross’ ability to provide its mobility service. And amid all this financial wrangling, there is a very real human cost to be paid.

Suddenly losing your mobility can be a rotten situation to be in, and our volunteers see the effects every day.

The discomfort and frustration are clear to see in the broken-legged child stuck indoors for the summer holidays; the busy-bee rendered immobile for two months after an operation; the bride-to-beworried about missing her big day.

These are all distressing situations that could be made drastically better through the simple loan of a wheelchair.

Ease the burden

The bottom line is that all the key players – the NHS, local authorities and the Red Cross – want the same thing: to help vulnerable people.

But the Red Cross already invests its own charitable funds in providing the mobility aids service.

By paying ‘rent’ for hospital space, we’re essentially paying twice over. It’s like asking someone to help you out with the gardening, then charging them to use the lawn-mower.

In our view, the best – and fairest – way ahead would be for the statutory sector in all four countries of the UK to each agree a legally binding arrangement to help fund the service.

Working in a common cause to set guidelines, we could significantly ease the burden of the NHS and reach more of those who desperately need help.

Together, we could achieve so much more.