Two woman stand shoulder to shoulder, one in a British Red Cross uniform, the other in NHS uniformWe know what you’re thinking: “Who knew the British Red Cross worked with the NHS?” Well, we actually have a long and proud history working in the health and social care sector. Join us on a journey through the years.

Before the National Health Service (NHS)

Most people know about our voluntary nurses and doctors during the First and Second World War. Maybe even one of your relatives was involved? But there’s more to know.

In 1870, the first Red Cross horse-drawn ambulances were used during the Franco-Prussian war. And in 1921, Red Cross volunteer Percy Lane Oliver set up the UK’s first blood collection service.

London blood transfusion service carnival float (1929)

London blood transfusion service carnival float (1929)

When the NHS was founded after the Second World War, we were there. It was an ambitious task ensuring everyone in the UK had free access to the same level of care.

Working with the NHS

The Red Cross launched a five-year plan to help over the interim period before the new NHS system could be fully realised.

As part of this, we ran nine auxiliary hospitals with 505 beds in total, which acted as a stepping stone between hospitals and people returning home.


Youth members from London Branch at a training camp (1950)

Promoting wellbeing

Across the decades, we also started to focus more on what we called welfare services – things that helped people’s general health and wellbeing, but which hospitals didn’t have the time or resources to focus on.

For example, inside hospitals we ran out-patient canteens and even bedside services like our hospital library trolley.

Red Cross Hospital Library (1967)

Red Cross Hospital Library (1967)

Two of our main services were providing meals on wheels (in 1975 our volunteers in Derry-Londonderry were described as “The most wonderful ladies in the world”) and medical loans – the latter of which we still do today, providing wheelchairs and mobility aids.

In fact, we are the biggest national provider of short-term wheelchair loans – and often the only option for people who’d otherwise be facing months stuck on the sofa.

Meals on Wheels, Hertford Branch (1968)

Meals on Wheels, Hertford Branch (1968)

Over the decades, we also provided therapeutic care. Once known as our ‘beauty service’, today it is focused around hand, arm and shoulder massage, helping promote a sense of wellbeing and relaxation in people during times of personal crisis.

Therapeutic care in a hospital (1990s)

Therapeutic care in a hospital (1990s)

What we do today

Exactly how the Red Cross helps within health and social care has changed a lot over the years, depending on need.

Today, we still operate in the gap between home and hospital helping over 200,000 people every year across our independent living services.

We work with each individual to offer them the personal support they need – whether it is getting them home safely and quickly, doing the shopping or help sorting out the heating.

Our services are ongoing all year round. But we can also scale up them to meet increased need or pressure.

A British Red Cross volunteer supports an older man at home

The future of health and social care in the UK

There is a wide consensus that the UK is facing a health and social care crisis.

With an ageing population, increasingly stretched resources and cultural barriers to change, there is growing pressure on our health and social care systems. Urgent action is needed.

The quality of our country’s hard working, dedicated health and social care professionals is not in question and many parts of the system are working well. But, there are gaps.

While the answer is not just more money, an immediate injection of cash is needed to stabilise our social care system.

And, from doctors to commissioners, MPs to charities, we’re calling for all actors to come together and focus on a joined-up, long-term solution.