Red Cross Slashes Hundreds of Jobs As It Outsources Vital Wheelchair Service

‘You’d expect this from the private sector.’

by Polly Smythe

12 April 2024

A motorcycle courier
A motorcycle courier. Adobe Stock

For 110 years, the Red Cross has operated under the principle that “everyone who needs a wheelchair should be able to get one quickly and easily, that is right for them and for as long as they need it.”

Now, the charity is to axe 140 of 155 jobs in its mobility aids service, and cut the number of volunteers from 636 to just seven.

These staff and volunteers help to set up mobility equipment, demonstrate how to use the loaned wheelchairs and toilet aids, and offer practical support to vulnerable patients, who are often immobile or bedbound.

Staff will be replaced by an outsourced courier service which will drop off wheelchairs at users’ doors, along with an instruction booklet.

As the largest provider of short-term wheelchairs in the UK, the Red Cross plays a vital role in the provision of equipment, loaning close to 60,000 mobility aids each year to patients recovering from amputations, heart attacks, hip and knee replacements, and fractures.

Following the job cuts, in-person support will be stopped. In an internal memo sent to staff at risk of redundancy and seen by Novara Media, the charity said that its current “unique and personalised support comes at a cost, and if we want to continue to be able to deliver the service, we need to do it a much [sic] more systematised way.”

“Couriers will not provide help to set up equipment, instead this will come from online video briefings and instruction booklets delivered with the wheelchair,” the memo said.

So far, the charity has not confirmed which courier company will replace its staff. But Red Cross staff worry that the service could end up at the mercy of one of the UK’s courier companies which set workers harsh delivery targets and bogusly classify drivers as self-employed.

A Red Cross staff member who chose to remain anonymous told Novara Media: “So far, there’s been no comment from management as to how a courier driver will visit a patient on a hospital ward, and demonstrate how to use the equipment, while still hitting their quota of deliveries for the day.

“For home deliveries, our drivers sometimes wait 5-10 minutes to allow people to answer the door. This is factored in as an obvious part of delivering to people with mobility issues but seems to be a glaring oversight in these proposals.

“Problems are going to arise if a courier has to get through 60 drops in a day. They’re just not going to be able to wait on somebody.”

A spokesperson for the Red Cross said that it would find a courier service that “understands our values”.

They added: “The couriers will be aware they are delivering equipment to people with mobility issues, and so allow time for those deliveries.”

In an internal briefing circulated to staff at risk of redundancy seen by Novara Media, the Red Cross said: “This is not the way we want to run things, but we have no choice.”

Yet staff at the charity said that the job losses are not an inevitability but are instead the result of a decision made in 2018 by the executive leadership team to turn the service into a social enterprise.

“Whilst income had improved year on year, this was not to the extent we need to make the service self-sustaining,” said the memo. Despite the redundancies, the charity said it “stuck by” its decision to make the service a social enterprise.

While staff accept that the service runs at a deficit, they also point to the fact that the charity raised a record £440 million in 2022.

“Since 2019, the onus has shifted from providing a person-centred service to turning a profit,” said a Red Cross staff member. “Prior to this shift, it was agreed we would run a deficit that was offset from general funds. You’d expect this from the private sector, but not from a charity who almost doubled their income a few years ago.”

Last August the charity appointed Beatrice Butsana-Sita, former director of Capita and BT, as chief executive, which staff say is part of a broader culture shift within the charity.

In April 2022, staff were consulted on whether the price of the service should be increased. “We said that if you put the prices up, no one’s going to be able to afford it. It’s a cost-of-living crisis,” said a staff member. Despite staff opposition, the price of the service was increased. One reason given by management for the redundancies is a fall in demand for the service, which staff say was created by the price hike.

Staff are also incredulous at being told that outsourcing couriers would mean “an improvement in the carbon footprint” of the Red Cross.

A spokesperson for the Red Cross said that the redundancies are “unavoidable” and that it is “supporting everyone affected and will be working with them to identify alternative roles where possible.”

The spokesperson said the new delivery service will, “ensure that we can continue to provide wheelchairs when and where they are needed, for another hundred years.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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