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Brexit and optics

This page covers some optics-related questions and answers that our members may be thinking about as the March 2019 Brexit deadline approaches

This page covers some optics-related questions and answers that our members may be thinking about as we approach 29 March 2019, the date when the UK is due to leave the European Union. It also links to our guidance for members who have a role in running an optical practice, on preparing for a no-deal Brexit.  

The high level of political uncertainty around Brexit has continued since we first published information for members in summer 2018. We will continue to update the information on this page to reflect developments. 
 

COMMON QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT BREXIT AND OPTICS

Should I start preparing for a no-deal Brexit?

If you have a role in running an optical practice, you will need to start thinking about the possible consequences of a no-deal Brexit for your practice.

The UK Government has negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, including a transition period after 29 March 2019 which would avoid a disorderly no-deal Brexit on that date. But it remains unclear whether Parliament will agree to the Withdrawal Agreement, or (if not) whether the UK Government will be able to make other arrangements, such as suspending the withdrawal process, in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March.

The UK Government has therefore stepped up its planning for a no-deal Brexit. In late December 2018 the Government published new guidance for healthcare providers in England, on preparing for no-deal. That guidance was addressed to all providers including optical practices that provide NHS services. However, we’ve recently heard informally that the Government doesn’t expect all providers to act on the guidance at this stage.

We have published member guidance on preparing for a no-deal Brexit, including links to further information. Given the high level of political uncertainty around the outcome of the Brexit process, we recommend that if you have a role in running a UK optical practice, you should: 

  • Read our summary of the key points in the December 2018 UK Government guidance
  • Consider whether you need to read the full Government guidance, and/or take any follow-up action

Will I be able to provide NHS treatment to visitors from the EU after Brexit?

You can provide GOS services to any overseas visitor who meets the eligibility criteria, including visitors from EU member states, and they will not be charged for this. You can claim the GOS fee in the usual way. We do not currently expect Brexit to affect this. 

If you offer MECS services, these are available free of charge to anyone who is registered with a GP in the relevant CCG area, including overseas visitors from the EU and elsewhere. Again, Brexit should not affect this.  

The Optical Confederation has published guidance explaining why overseas visitors are not charged for GOS and MECS services.

Will Brexit affect hospital eye health services?

Hospital eye health services in the UK are already struggling to meet the demands of an ageing population. A  report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on eye health and visual impairment found that “the current system is failing patients on a grand scale” and that capacity problems are causing irreversible sight loss. 

Although there are no published statistics on the background of hospital ophthalmologists, we’ve heard estimates that between 10% and 25% of those currently practising in the UK were trained in another EU member state. If many of those choose to leave the UK after Brexit, that would further reduce capacity in hospital eye services.

We will continue to make the case for extended primary eye care and community monitoring services to be commissioned on a wider scale in England, to help relieve pressure on hospital eye care. You can read more in our position statement on primary eye healthcare services

Will Brexit affect the supply of optometrists in the UK?

In the longer term we don’t expect Brexit to have a big impact on the optometric workforce in the UK. The optical professions are defined and regulated in different ways across the EU, and although optometrists are able to move to other member states to practise, different local registration arrangements apply in each country. Irish optometry graduates can usually work in the UK, but those from other member states have to meet the General Optical Council (GOC) requirements for EEA applicants. The GOC registered only 65 nationals of EEA member states between 2014 and 2016.  

I have staff who are EU citizens – what do I need to do?

In late 2018 the UK Government ran a pilot scheme to allow EU citizens to stay in the UK after Brexit, which was open to people employed in health and social care, including GOC registrants. The pilot scheme closed in December 2018, but the Government has said a new EU Settlement Scheme will open by March 2019. 

The UK Government has published some information about the mechanics of the new Scheme here. The Scheme will be launched if the Withdrawal Agreement comes into force, or if there is a no-deal Brexit on 29 March 2019. We assume the new Scheme may not be launched by March 2019 if the withdrawal process is delayed beyond that point, for example to allow for a further referendum. 

The UK Government has said that: 

  • UK businesses with health and care staff who are citizens of another EU member state should tell them about the new EU Settlement Scheme
  • the new Scheme will remain open until the end of 2020 in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so there will be plenty of time for EU citizens to register

Will Brexit affect the supply of optical goods and medicines from the EU to the UK?

What will happen in March 2019? 

If the UK Government can avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March 2019, by obtaining Parliament’s support for the Withdrawal Agreement or by some other route, there should be no immediate impact on the supply of goods from the EU, including optical goods and medicines. 

If there is a no-deal Brexit on 29 March, that will affect the supply of optical goods and medicines from the EU. However, the UK Government advises that providers of healthcare services, including optical practices, should not stockpile medicines, medical devices or clinical consumables beyond business as usual stock levels. See our guidance on preparing for a no-deal Brexit for more information.   

What will be the long-term impact?

If the UK moves onto World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms for trade with EU member states, either in March 2019 or at a later stage, that is likely to affect the cost of future imports from the EU. However, it’s too soon to say what the impact will be.

The EU trade tariff for lenses imported into the EU from a third country (currently 2.9%) would presumably apply to lenses exported from the UK to the EU. But the tariffs on items imported into the UK from the EU would be set by the UK Government, and that would be a political decision. Some commentators have argued that the UK should unilaterally set very low or even zero tariffs for many imports. That could reduce prices for UK consumers, but could also lead to job losses for UK producers – and would weaken the UK’s negotiating position when seeking new trade agreements. Higher tariffs would avoid those problems but increase the cost of imports.

The cost and availability of imported goods and services can also be affected by non-tariff barriers such as regulation, and Brexit may affect the way some goods used by optical practices are regulated.

Will Brexit affect the regulation of optical devices and medicines?

Brexit is unlikely to have an immediate effect on the regulations governing optical devices and medicines in the UK. However, a no-deal Brexit in March 2019 could affect the way the rules are enforced, particularly for import and exports.

Spectacle frames, lenses and contact lenses are regulated as medical devices under EU and UK law, and optical practices use a range of regulated medicines. The UK regulator, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said in its corporate plan published in April 2018 that the UK Government wants “to retain a close working partnership with both EU and other global regulators to ensure patients continue to have timely access to safe medicines and medical innovations”, but that the exact nature of the MHRA’s relationship with EU regulators will depend on the Brexit negotiations.

As with trade tariffs, the future shape of regulation will be partly a political decision for the UK Government, and partly a matter of international negotiation. The UK’s current policy aim on the regulation of goods seems to be to remain harmonised with EU rules unless and until the UK decides to diverge from them. However, it may be challenging to persuade the EU to agree to this.  

Will Brexit affect the EU-based rules our business has to follow, such as employment rights and data protection?

Many of the EU-inspired legal requirements underpinning the Single Market, such as employment rights, are already written into UK law. After the 2016 referendum the UK Parliament legislated to bring all EU legal requirements into the body of UK law. So the current laws that affect UK optical practices won’t change automatically as a result of Brexit, whether we leave under the Withdrawal Agreement or on a no-deal basis.

Over time, the UK Government may seek to diverge from EU law in some areas. Again, this would be a political decision, and at present it is hard to say whether or how quickly the UK might adopt new rules.   

Will Brexit affect how the AOP works with international bodies?

The AOP is one of five UK members of the European Council of Optometry and Optics (ECOO), along with the College of Optometrists, ABDO, FODO and the GOC. The five UK members meet together as the Joint Optical Committee for the European Union (JOCEU) and develop joint positions in preparation for ECOO’s twice-yearly meetings.

ECOO has members from 23 countries, not all of which are EU member states. We expect the AOP to remain engaged with JOCEU and ECOO to keep abreast of developments that might affect the optical professions in the UK, and to intervene where needed to protect and support our members.  

FURTHER INFORMATION

If you have any questions about Brexit and Europe-related issues not covered on this page, please contact our policy team on policy@aop.org.uk.  

Published: 22 August 2018
Last updated: 23 January 2019