Why wheelchairs are essential medical aids during the Covid-19 pandemic
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the British Red Cross was one of the UK’s largest suppliers of wheelchairs. Now, our wheelchairs are helping the NHS keep patients safe
When you think of someone in hospital with Covid-19, a wheelchair probably isn’t the first medical aid to come to mind. But along with ventilators, oxygen masks and hospital beds, wheelchairs are vital to helping the NHS tackle the pandemic.
Since the outbreak started, the British Red Cross has supplied wheelchairs to more than 30 hospitals up and down the UK, including the Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham. We’ve also been using our wheelchairs to help people get home after their hospital treatment. In many cases, our volunteers then follow up with weeks of home visits, helping people get whatever they need to feel safe at home again - from food and medicines to links to online exercise classes.
Wheelchairs and the Red Cross: a history of helping
Supporting the NHS through our wheelchair service and volunteers is just one more chapter in a shared history that goes back decades. And even before the NHS was formed, we helped injured servicemen coming home from the First World War, plus others who needed help getting around. After the war ended, the Red Cross continued to offer wheelchairs to people with mobility issues. Then when the NHS was born in 1948, they were happy for the Red Cross to keep our wheelchair service going as they had a lot of other priorities.
By the beginning of 2020, we had wheelchair services in 140 communities across the UK. Together, they supplied over 50,000 wheelchairs annually for people with short-term mobility problems, such as a broken leg or illness. People can hire our wheelchairs - plus commodes and other aids - for a lower price than in other shops and nobody is turned away if they can’t afford the fee.
Our 106-year-old wheelchair service immediately changed direction
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, people could no longer come to us to get their wheelchairs and many of our hundreds of volunteers had to socially isolate at home .
In a groundbreaking partnership with Big Yellow Storage, we are storing wheelchairs in 27 storage locations around the country free of charge. From there, volunteers can pick them up and bring them to hospitals to take people home after they finish treatment, and patients can keep the wheelchairs for free for six weeks if they need them.
Through this time of huge change, our community wheelchair service also stayed open. In Sussex, for instance, just months ago we had 180 volunteers working for our wheelchair service across 37 locations. Once the lockdown started, 160 of them had to stop volunteering and the remaining 20 had to volunteer from home. The wheelchair team immediately realised that while some of their locations could stay open, most people couldn’t get to them. They needed to ramp up their home delivery service instead.
First, they quickly created a core of five locations and moved their delivery vehicles there. Once they had identified their skeleton staff, the service emailed and called GPs, pharmacists, hospital discharge lounges and patient liaison teams.
The message was: “We’re still here and we want to support both hospital discharges and home deliveries”. Our teams also worked with other community groups so we could reach people from both sides - those in need at home as well patients leaving hospital - to make sure that everyone who needed a wheelchair could get one.
Help leaving hospital and afterwards
Our services often help clear wards, which means taking home patients with other conditions so the beds can be used for Covid-19 patients. They may be leaving hospital sooner than they would have otherwise. Other times, patients need the wheelchair to get around even if they have recovered from what originally put them in hospital.
One woman from Hampshire shared that she just had her second knee replacement. Our equipment helped make her life a lot easier, she said, especially as she has to work full time. In another case, a 14-year-old boy who lives in Kent and has rheumatoid arthritis has been waiting to see a specialist at a London children’s hospital. Our wheelchair loan helps him get out with his family until then, and they will use it to bring him to his hospital appointments.
“No one should have to stay in hospital for lack of a wheelchair or other mobility aid,” said Geoff Cheshire, head of the British Red Cross mobility aid service. “And vulnerable people with mobility challenges shouldn’t feel trapped in their own homes, especially at a time when we are already self-isolating.”
As with so many services, we expect that Covid-19 will leave the wheelchair service changed for the better. While we will still operate in many communities, the home delivery service will play an increasingly important role in getting wheelchairs to people who need them.
“The lack of a mobility aid can prevent someone from doing even simple tasks around the house, let alone enjoying some meaningful exercise, indoors or out,” said Geoff.
“Those concerns can be the difference between someone having to stay in hospital or being able to return home, and we want clinicians and emergency responders embedded in communities to know we are here to support them.”
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