Freedom Day?

After restrictions eased on 19 July, practices are continuing measures to keep staff and patients safe

Disinfection products
Getty/Iuliia Kanivets

After what has felt like an ever-evolving lead up, on Monday (19 July) lockdown restrictions in England were lifted. The devolved nations are also in the process of reducing restrictions, but each at a different pace.

Though nicknamed ‘Freedom Day,’ the tone around the easing of restrictions feels very different to the first announcement several weeks ago. Several key members of government are self-isolating, while reports suggest the NHS COVID-19 app, which warns users if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus and advises a period of self-isolation, sent more than 500,000 alerts in the first week of July. 

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday (21 July), Boris Johnson shared an apology to businesses experiencing inconvenience as a result of the policy and added: “We will be switching… to a system based on contact testing rather than contact isolation – but, until then, I just must remind everybody that isolation is a vital tool in our defence against the disease.” 

Aiming to alleviate pressure on healthcare services, the Department of Health and Social Care has introduced a self-isolation exemption for frontline health and care staff in exceptional circumstances, where “staff absence may lead to a significant risk of harm to patients,” and with a number of testing mitigations in place.

The plans for the exemption have received a mixed response from health leaders, with Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, illustrating: “On the one hand, they are worried about their capacity to support patients safely and quickly, particularly given that many staff will already be away for parts of summer as they take overdue annual leave that is owed to them, but on the other hand, the last thing they would want to do is expose their patients and colleagues to an increased risk of catching the virus, so the need for local review and discretion here is important.”

Optical sector bodies have issued advice around the exemption, highlighting: “The optical sector bodies have considered these conditions and concluded that this exemption is not likely to be available in primary care optical practices, except in genuinely exceptional circumstances,” and has shared guidance on appropriate application of the exemption in primary eye care.

Overall, the easing of restrictions has seemed to have little practical difference in optical practices, and rather than a sense of freedom, it seems the changes have instead brought a degree of apprehension.

An OT poll of 513 readers in the run-up to the lifting of the restrictions found that the majority wanted to keep social distancing measures in place beyond 19 July, with 64% wanting to keep them “until I feel it is safe to remove them.” 

With sector bodies supporting the need to maintain infection prevention and control measures, continuing to follow the College of Optometrists’ 'amber phase' COVID-19 guidance, and the General Optical Councils’ supporting statements, OT has heard from practices around their procedures post-19 July, with all confirming that very little, if anything, would change.

Perhaps most striking from these conversations were those around the need to continue wearing face coverings in practice.

Highlighting the importance of mask-wearing, Mohamed Ayyaz Kasmani, director and principal optometrist of Feltham Eyecare Centre, told OT: “We have to remember that there are many optometrists, dispensing opticians and practice staff members who are vulnerable and they need protecting.”

Similarly, optometrist Emma Spofforth, who has a compromised immune system, told OT that amidst the easing of restrictions around mask wearing in public, and rising cases, she does not feel comfortable returning to work.

Spofforth shared her concern about the potential for confusion among members of the public regarding the requirements to wear face coverings, commenting: “My fear is for my colleagues who are still out there on the frontline dealing with patients who don’t understand why they need to wear masks.”

If you haven’t already, why not dip into OT’s report on the easing of restrictions and take part in our poll to tell us if fewer patients are now wearing face masks compared to before 19 July?