Who pays for your wheelchair?

Last updated 20 July 2023

If you come a cropper and need a wheelchair, you could either get injured just a little or quite a lot. Confused? You should be. 

Facts about wheelchairs in the UK

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

If you twist your ankle or get a small mobility injury, hospitals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to provide you with a ‘minor aid’ – such as crutches or a walking frame.  

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…

If you need a wheelchair for a ‘short-term’ ailment (officially, anything lasting less than six months), then no official body has responsibility to offer 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.

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. We helped 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 2018, only 25 out of 139 NHS wheelchair services made any provision at all for short-term need.)

Wheels of fortune

Today, the Red Cross wheelchair service loans out wheelchairs to people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  We are now exploring new ways of delivering our service, including offering ‘pop-up’ services in supermarket car parks. This has been a particularly successful approach in London.

In a few areas, our teams are 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 get to 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. Because the service has grown so organically over decades, the way the Red Cross works with statutory bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland isn’t always the same.

So, for example, the Welsh government currently gives the Red Cross an 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.

In England, a few areas provide funding to the British Red Cross to offer short-term wheelchair loans, but this is limited. Again, it reflects the lack of consistency on this issue.

Distressing situations

Such an inconsistent 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.

Losing your mobility can be a rotten situation to be in, and our volunteers see the effects every day. Luckily, this distressing situation can 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.

In our view, the best and fairest way ahead would be for the statutory sector in all four countries of the UK to implement a legally binding obligation to provide a short-term wheelchair to people who have a short-term mobility need.

In the meantime, we encourage local statutory health and social care services to explore ways of improving the provision of short-term wheelchairs. This will help ensure that is it delivered in a more consistent and joined up manner to those who need it.

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.