Coronavirus: the optics briefing

A new eye unit opens in Northallerton, furlough winds down, and more than 70 organisations flag concerns over the dismantlement of PHE

virus and optical equipment

The OT team is committed to supporting optical professionals during this challenging time by providing the latest news on how coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting the profession.

Below is our round-up of the latest coverage. Feel free to get in touch by email to share how COVID-19 is affecting your practice and how you are adjusting to support colleagues and patients at this time. 

“It’s right it has to come to an end:” optometrists react to furlough scheme winding down

The Government furlough scheme began winding down on Tuesday (1 September).

The Government will cover 70% of a worker’s wage, with employers required to contribute 10%.

In October, the Government will subsidise 60% of furloughed workers’ salaries, with 20% of wages paid by employers.

Previously the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has covered 80% of a worker’s salary, up to a monthly maximum of £2500.

The latest data reveals that 9.6 million UK jobs were furloughed for at least part of the period between March and June. This is roughly one in three eligible jobs.

Optometrist and managing director of Cameron Optometry, Ian Cameron, told OT that while he is sad that the furlough scheme is winding down, it is the right step now that businesses are back operating.

“It’s right it has to come to an end, if only for the greater good of Government debt levels,” Mr Cameron said.

The focus for the practice team will be on restoring sales to previous levels without compromising patient safety, he added.

He noted that the gradual wind down has helped with the transition from low patient volumes to more normal levels.

“Things are improving; patient confidence in attending is good and many of the business owners I know say they are fully booked for weeks which is good on one hand, but our capacity is severely curtailed with hygiene and distancing measures,” Mr Cameron said.

There are still uncertainties moving forward, including whether sales will return to normal levels, how long this will take, the prospect of further local restrictions and long-term changes to the sector as a result of COVID-19.

“These are crucial factors that no one has any firm answers to, so, like everyone else, we’re going to have to play it by ear and remain as agile as we can,” Mr Cameron shared.

“In a way it’s an exciting time to be running a small business, even if a little nerve-racking at times. My heartfelt best wishes to all business owners out there juggling so many balls at once to keep their businesses and staff teams going strong," he concluded.

Specsavers director of human resources for UK & Ireland, Dawn McIntyre, told OT that at the peak of the pandemic, around 70% of staff were on furlough.

“Over the last couple of months, we have been bringing back colleagues as and when each store needed, ensuring each person was safe and felt comfortable,” she said.

Staff returning from furlough were given training on personal protective equipment and new processes in place to protect customers and staff.

“We are delighted to see more and more colleagues returning every week and currently have around 15% of people who are still on furlough or flexi-furlough," Ms McIntyre highlighted.

Optometrist and chairman of BBR Optometry, Nick Rumney, told OT that the Government furlough scheme gave the business confidence in retaining staff.

He noted that the initiative had to end at some point.

“Personally, I think optometry practice has been better served than many industries,” Mr Rumney said.

He noted that “virtually all” BBR Optometry staff were back working at 2019 turnover levels or better for July and August. 

More than 70 organisations raise concerns about reorganisation of public health

Health organisations have flagged risks associated with replacing Public Health England (PHE) with the National Institute of Health Protection (NIHP).

A joint statement signed by more than 70 organisations warns that the move risks fragmentation between health protection and health improvement.

“Organisational change is difficult and can be damaging at the best of times and these are not the best of times. A seamless transition from the current to the new system is essential,” the statement emphasises.

The transition to the NIHP will be formally concluded by April 2021, although the work of the new organisation has already begun under the interim leadership of Baroness Dido Harding, who sits as chair on the board of NHS Improvement and is executive chair of NHS Test and Trace.

The joint statement was sent to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Health, and the interim leadership of Public Health England.

Signatories include the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Faculty of Public Health, the Royal Society for Public Health, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the BMA, the SPECTRUM public health research collaboration, the Smokefree Action Coalition and the Richmond Group of health and care charities.

While alerting the Government to potential risks of the restructure, the statement also highlights opportunities “if there is greater investment combined with an emphasis on deepening expertise, improving co-ordination and strengthening accountability.”

New Northallerton eye unit to serve 14,000 patients a year

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has opened a new eye unit within his constituency of Richmond at Friarage Hospital.

The service will mean that around 14,000 patients each year from Hambleton and Richmondshire will not need to travel to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough for treatment.

Mr Sunak opened the unit alongside the hospital’s longest serving staff member, Doreen Eaton.

Ms Eaton has worked at the hospital as a nurse for close to 60 years after joining Friarage Hospital in 1956.

GOC approves temporary education changes in light of COVID-19

The General Optical Council (GOC) has approved temporary changes to its Optometry handbook and Supervision policy, following a two-week consultation.

Changes include a reduction of 10% in the total number of GOC stage 2 patient episodes a student must achieve and an extension to the stage 1 Certificate of Clinical Competence for summer 2018 graduates.

The regulator launched a consultation on 23 July into proposed temporary changes to the documents, in light of the continuing impact of COVID-19 on how students might achieve clinical experience during the pandemic.

The consultation closed on 6 August, receiving a total of 71 responses. Taking this feedback into account, the regulator has approved the temporary changes to the documents.

The temporary changes to the handbook affecting undergraduate students will be applicable from 1 September for the next academic year (2020/21) only.

Similarly, the changes that affect the College of Optometrists’ Scheme for Registration, or other registrable qualifications, will be applicable to the incoming cohort of students and trainees enrolling onto the Scheme between 1 September 2020 and 30 May 2021.

Commenting on the consultation outcomes, Tony Stafford, AOP policy director, told OT: “We hope these temporary changes to the handbook help ensure that our student and pre-reg members can safely complete their education and training in what will be challenging circumstances.”

NHS Test and Trace reaches 272,000 close contacts

The UK Government has confirmed that 80% of close contacts have been reached by NHS Test and Trace teams where contact details are provided.

However, concerns remain about the turnaround times for testing and the proportion of people who test positive for COVID-19 who provide information about close contacts.

Statistics for 6 August to 12 August reveal that only 60.5% of in-person test results were returned within 24 hours.

While 6616 positive test results were returned over the latest reporting period, only 2937 people who tested positive with COVID-19 were successfully contacted and provided information about one or more close contacts.

Research from Imperial College London has found that an effective test and trace system could reduce the effective reproduction number (the R value) by up to 26%.

However, this relies on 80% of cases and contacts being identified, with testing following symptom onset and the quarantine of contacts within 24 hours.

Rochdale-based locum optometrist, Atif Hussain, has shared his experiences of contributing to the NHS Test and Trace programme in the regular OT feature Life as locum.

The Government has established dedicated teams of contact tracers who are working with local authorities to reach contacts in communities that have not responded to the service, particularly where the prevalence of COVID-19 is high.

Regional teams are now in place in Leicester, Blackburn with Darwen, Luton, Sandwell, Rochdale, Peterborough and Oldham.

NHS Test and Trace

AOP offers lapsed and non-members 20% discount

The AOP has recognised the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic with a discount on membership for lapsed and non-members.

Shortly following the UK lockdown, the AOP implemented a 20% reduction in membership fees in response to the financial hardship faced by many members.

The membership organisation is now offering a discounted rate to lapsed and non-members to ensure that as many optometrists can access AOP support as possible.

AOP chief executive Henrietta Alderman highlighted that the organisation offers an “unrivalled” package of membership benefits.

“On joining, you’ll receive access to the AOP in-house legal team, expert legal, clinical and regulatory guidance, and the online resources that the AOP has developed to help members during this difficult time,” she said.

Lapsed members can re-join by visiting and logging into their previous account. New members should visit, and both can call the AOP membership team on 020 7549 2010 if they have any issues joining online, or simply wish to speak to one of the team.

Health organisations raise concerns over PHE reform

The Government has announced plans to create a new organisation focused around public health protection. The AOP has welcomed the potential for “renewed focus” on pandemic management, though shared a hope that the restructuring won’t be a “distraction” in the current situation.

The National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will bring together PHE, NHS Test and Trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre under single leadership.

The Government suggested this would be the first step towards forming a single organisation that would be focused on tackling coronavirus (COVID-19) and ensuring capability to control infectious disease, pandemics or health protection crises in future.

We hope this reorganisation gives the UK government and the NHS a renewed focus on putting effective pandemic management arrangements in place to protect everyone, including our members and their patients. We also hope the reorganisation doesn’t cause unnecessary distraction at this important time

Dr Peter Hampson, Clinical Director for the AOP

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the development of the new organisation would give the country “the best chance of beating this virus once and for all – and of spotting and being ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future.”

The NIHP will start work immediately, though the organisation will be formalised and operating from spring 2021. In the meantime, discussions are set to take place over the future of PHE’s other health improvement functions.

Commenting on the announcement, Dr Peter Hampson, clinical director for the AOP, said: “We hope this reorganisation gives the UK government and the NHS a renewed focus on putting effective pandemic management arrangements in place to protect everyone, including our members and their patients.

“We also hope the reorganisation doesn’t cause unnecessary distraction at this important time,” Dr Hampson added.

Health charities and think tanks have also shared similar sentiments, with the Health Foundation suggesting that, while it made sense to enhance PHE’s focus on infection and control, and form better links to the Test and Trace and Joint Biosecurity Centre, “reorganising the nation's public health agency in the middle of a pandemic is highly risky.”

The chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, Christina Marriot, also suggested the move “seems risky” and warned the move could risk “system-wide disruption.”

AOP launches free pre-reg register

The AOP has launched a new resource to help students and pre-registration members list their availability for placements.

The tool was designed to help students and pre-reg members who have lost their placements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commenting on the launch, the AOP’s head of education, Dr Ian Beasley, said: “The launch of the new register allows our student members to showcase skills and availability to practices in their surrounding area.

“Pre-regs offer a unique solution to utilising redundant consulting room space while working at a pace that lends itself well to current circumstances, as well as providing an extra pair of clinical hands," he added.

Sharing her own experience, AOP member Fatima explained: "When my chosen pre-reg placement fell through due to a COVID-related backlog, I decided to join the AOP Pre-reg register as it seemed like a great way of securing the ideal training post by targeting a wider field of potential employers.”

Pre-regs offer a unique solution to utilising redundant consulting room space while working at a pace that lends itself well to current circumstances, as well as providing an extra pair of clinical hands

Dr Ian Beasley, AOP head of education

The register is accessible for all AOP members, though only students and pre-reg optometrists with active AOP memberships will be able to list their details on the register.

The free register is complementary to the AOP’s pre-registration optometrist vacancies list, which allows practices to advertise pre-reg vacancies for free.

A level and GCSE students will be able to use teacher-submitted grades

The Government and the examinations regulator, Ofqual, have confirmed that A level and GCSE students will be able to revert to the grades submitted by their teachers, following protests over a standardisation process that has been deemed “unfair.”

The decision follows widespread disappointment and frustration from students who saw their grades drop through an algorithm that was designed to standardise results as exams were cancelled in spring due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Figures from Ofqual suggest teachers in England saw nearly 40% of their A level assessments downgraded by the algorithm.

In a statement, education secretary Gavin Williamson acknowledged: “the system has resulted in too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A and AS level students.”

Responding to the decision, the chief executive for the Association of Colleges, David Hughes, said the news would be a “relief after days of anguish” for students, adding: “There were too many students being given grades below what they would probably have achieved.”

Students who received their A or AS level results last Thursday (13 August) will be reissued their centre assessment grades (CAG) – a grade submitted by teachers and based on mock exams, assessments and coursework. Students expecting their GCSE results on Thursday will also receive their CAG.

Where a students’ calculated grades were higher than the CAG, the higher grade will stand.

The decision could have implications for universities where places may have been filled through clearing. The Government shared its intention to address this by removing student number controls – which would have capped the number of places universities could offer in 2020/2021.

Earlier this summer, data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) revealed that the number of students planning to start university this autumn has risen, despite fears that more students would consider deferring due to the challenges brought about by COVID-19.

Speaking to OT, a number of universities offering optometry courses had shared their expectations for a full student intake in the year ahead and increases in the number of applications.

ONS expands infection survey across the UK

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is expanding its infection survey to enrol 400,000 people in England, as well as extending the coverage of the study further across the UK.

The ONS plans to expand the survey from regularly testing 28,000 people per fortnight in England to 150,000 by October, with the aim of increasing to 400,000 people in England.

Following a successful pilot carried out in England, the study will also be expanded to cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making it the country’s largest study tracking coronavirus (COVID-19) in the general population.

ONS suggested the study will play a key role in providing extensive data on the spread of infection, as well as supporting rapid testing and diagnosis – both nationally and in areas of concern.

The North West of England and London will be prioritised in the ramp-up, due to recent increases in infection rates in these areas.

Contact lens fitting can take place in the amber phase of the pandemic

The College of Optometrists has updated its COVID-19 guidance on non-medical contact lens fitting to allow this to be carried out during the amber phase of the pandemic.

The College of Optometrists originally advised that the fitting of non-medical contact lenses for new patients should not be carried out until the ‘green’ phase of the pandemic, except for ‘essential purposes’. However, this has now been adjusted following a consultation which highlighted ways to mitigate the risk around contact lens application and removal teaching, as well as recent evidence on the low risk of infection via the tear film.

The guidance emphasises that, as with other aspects of practice, if practitioners wish to fit a patient with contact lenses they should carry out a risk assessment of whether and how to do so safely. Practitioners should also assess their own levels of comfort with undertaking the procedure.

In addition to continuing “scrupulous infection control procedures” as well as wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), the College of Optometrists advised that, when fitting contact lenses, patients should wear a face covering.

The advice also covered teaching contact lens application and removal, noting that this should be carried out in a socially distanced way, such as by getting the patient to watch a video on the techniques and then practicing in a quiet area of the practice, or using a transparent plastic screen to separate the patient from the teaching practitioner.

The College of Optometrists said it has approached the public health authorities for their view on whether contact lens fitting is safe to resume for non-medical reasons, but has chosen to revise the guidance in the meantime. 

UK falls into recession according to ONS figures

The UK is experiencing its largest recession on record, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The figures revealed that UK gross domestic product (GDP) saw its second consecutive quarterly decline, falling by 20.4% in the second quarter (April to June). This follows a fall of 18.7% in the three months to May.

Monthly GDP did grow by 8.7% in June 2020, which economists have suggested is an early signal of a rebound, however this figure is still below the previous levels seen in February 2020 (a drop by 17.2%) before the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt.

Commenting on the figures, Jonathan Athow, ONS deputy national statistical for economic statistics, explained: “The recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record.”

The economy began to “bounce back” in June as shops reopened and factories began to ramp up production again, however, “GDP in June still remains a sixth below its level in February, before the virus struck.”

The ONS highlighted that while early estimates are liable to revision, “It is clear that the UK is in the largest recession on record.”

Considering how this news could affect the optical sector, Kathy Jones, AOP policy adviser told OT that practices could see a shift in consumer behaviour, commenting: “Consumers will always need eyewear, but in tight economic circumstances they may choose to select cheaper options. This will have an effect on the optical sector and businesses as a result.”

Reflecting on the challenges faced by optometrists, Ms Jones emphasised that more needs to be done to help workers who have missed out on Government support.

The AOP has written a series of letters to the Treasury, with the latest sent on 30 July, highlighting five groups of workers who have “fallen through the gaps” and calling for action to support these key groups.

Ms Jones continued: “It is vital that the Government does more to protect those whose livelihoods are at risk and to also boost consumer confidence at this very difficult time."

Speaking to OT, Tushar Majithia, practice owner and AOP councillor, observed: “Based on our experience and discussions with colleagues, most practices have seen strong sales since reopening.

“This is despite reduced capacity and extended appointment times. The main reason for this is that we are seeing patients who have been experiencing difficulties in their vision and needing to come in to update their spectacles.”

“The recession and news of extensive job losses will no doubt have long-term effects on the economy and consumer confidence,” Mr Majithia continued, adding, “I believe that this will cause difficulty for many optical practices over the coming months as the pent-up demand drops off.”

Speaking to the BBC in a recorded interview, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, responded to the figures, commenting: “When we were talking about this a few months ago I said hard times were coming, and today’s figures show that hard times are here.”

Mr Sunak acknowledged that “hundreds of thousands” of people have lost their jobs already with more job losses expected to come. He added, however: “Although tough decisions lie ahead for all of us, no one will be left without hope or opportunity.”

Commenting on the reports of recession, the national chairman for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), Mike Cherry, said: “Small firms make-up 99% of our business community and we won’t recover from this incredibly sharp recession unless they’re firing on all cylinders. Every policy change from here on in needs to be carefully assessed for its potential to create jobs, spur growth and increase productivity.”

Calling for “the most pro-business, pro-self-employed Budget ever” this autumn, Mr Cherry added, “We’ve had welcome measures to aid business survival and job retention, the Government should now be focussing on measures to aid business and job creation.”

AOP launches Locum vacancies list

The AOP has launched a new tool to help both practice owners and locum members in filling available positions.

The new Locum vacancies list allows members to advertise locum positions free of charge and has been designed to complement the AOP’s existing Locum register, where locum members can list their availability.

“We’ve launched the new Locum vacancies list to support both our practice owning members and locum members in search of work,” explained AOP communications director, Vicky Vine.

Ms Vine added: “Just a few days into its existence, I’m delighted this list is already being well used, with six locum vacancies and over 2500 page views.”

Study investigating long-term health effects of COVID-19 launches

A new UK study has launched into the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 in hospitalised patients.

The PHOSP-COVID study has been awarded £8.4 million by the government through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The study will be led by the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre, a partnership between the University of Leicester and the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, with around 10,000 patients expected to take part.

The study will seek to assess the impact of COVID-19 on patient health and their recovery, and aim to support the development of new strategies for clinical and rehabilitation care.

Commenting on the launch, Chief Medical Officer and head of NIHR, Professor Chris Whitty, said the study would be one of the first steps towards looking at the effects of COVID-19 on recovered patients.

He explained: “We have rightly focused on mortality, and what the UK can do straight away to protect lives, but we should also look at how COVID-19 impacts on the health of people after they have recovered from the immediate disease.”

Free PPE for GOS contracted optometrists through NHS portal

NHS England has confirmed that GOS contractors will be able to access a new portal providing free personal protective equipment (PPE) from 17 August.

The Department of Health and Social Care is rolling out the next phase of its PPE Portal, which was initially opened to GPs, residential care homes, domiciliary care providers and recently opened to pharmacies.

Optometrists will be invited to register with the portal, and will require an NHS mail address that is registered with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

The AOP outlined in an email to members that in order to have access as the portal launches, optometrists will need to ensure their NHS mail address is registered or created with the DHSC no later than 12 August.

OFNC points to potential extension of COVID-19 support in limited cases

The Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) has confirmed that negotiations are continuing over the level of COVID-19 funding for practices in England.

In an update on Friday 31 July, the OFNC shared that it could be “likely” that COVID-19 funding would be extended until 31 August for fixed practices that reach a minimum level of historic GOS1 activity.

“There is likely to be a requirement of minimum activity of 40% or more, but this is yet to be confirmed,” the committee explained, adding, “Support will also be extended into August for domiciliary providers, whatever their level of activity.”

The negotiation around support beyond August is ongoing, with a particular focus on practices in deprived areas which largely provide NHS care, and for domiciliary providers who face continued challenges in reaching patients.

The OFNC continued: “We are only too aware of the front-line pressures on the sector and we continue to express this urgency in negotiations with NHS England about COVID-19 funding for optical practices, following the end of the first phase of funding on 30 June.”

Routine eye care resumes in Scotland

Routine eye care resumed in Scotland this week for community optometry practices and in patients’ own homes.

On 30 July the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced plans to reopen several sectors, confirming that routine eye care services could resume in community practices and patients’ homes as of Monday 3 August.

Welcoming the announcement, Optometry Scotland issued a statement, calling it a “return to the new normal for optometry, dispensing and community eye care.”

The financial support package for practices and mobile practices will remain in place at the current time.

Kevin Wallace, optometrist and AOP councillor, also welcomed the news, adding: “This will allow practices to provide their full range of services and with the ongoing government financial support, will help practices continue to provide a vital service through this difficult period.”

In resuming routine care, practices will be expected to continue prioritising emergency and essential eye care, as well as those considered to be most at risk.

Routine care for patients in day and residential centres remains suspended.

Shielding guidance paused in England

The Government has paused the shielding guidance in England for the clinically extremely vulnerable.

As of 1 August, individuals who have been shielding over the course of the pandemic are no longer advised to do so. The decision comes as scientific evidence suggests the average incidence across the country remains lower than at the point when the decision to pause shielding was made.

This means people who have previously been shielding can begin to return to work and school where these locations are COVID-secure, the Government said. People will also be able to go outside “as much as they like,” including visiting supermarkets, pubs and shops, though they are “strongly advised” to maintain the social distancing guidelines.

Optometry practices are now well versed and prepared with PPE and processes and it is important that they convey to patients the steps they have in place to keep them safe

Dr Peter Hampson, AOP clinical director

Speaking to OT, AOP’s clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson, shared that practices could start to the see return of some patients who hadn’t previously ventured out, adding “many will understandably be more cautious.”

“Optometry practices are now well versed and prepared with PPE and processes and it is important that they convey to patients the steps they have in place to keep them safe,” Dr Hampson added. He suggested one way practices could do this would be by displaying the AOP infection control and prevention certificate to show they have undertaken training around the risks.

“Some practices may also choose to offer separate times to help to further protect those who are most vulnerable, but in most cases the normal COVID-secure measures will be enough,” Dr Hampson continued.

The easing of restrictions will not apply to those shielding in areas experiencing localised restrictions, including Blackburn with Darwen, Blaby and Charnwood, Luton, Leicester City, Wigston and Oadby.

World Health Organization: COVID-19 remains an international public health emergency

The Emergency Committee on COVID-19, brought together by the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general, met for the fourth time on 31 July and unanimously agreed that the coronavirus outbreak remains an international public health emergency.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on 30 January, at a time when there were fewer than 100 cases outside China. After a full discussion and review of the evidence in the most recent meeting, the committee agreed that the outbreak still constitutes an emergency.

“The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come," Dr Tedros told the committee. "Many countries that believed they were past the worst are now grappling with new outbreaks. Some that were less affected in the earliest weeks are now seeing escalating numbers of cases and deaths. And some that had large outbreaks have brought them under control."

The committee set out a number of recommendations for WHO and member states, including advising countries to continue supporting research efforts, strengthening public health surveillance for case identification and contact tracing, as well as implementing proportionate measures and advice on travel.

Healthcare workers no longer exempt from self-isolation requirements when travelling

Registered health and care professionals returning to the UK from high-risk countries will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, following an update that will take effect from 31 July.

With the reopening of travel routes and more people beginning to holiday abroad, the Government has removed the exemption suggesting the move would “minimise the risk of onward chains of transmission that might infect the wider workforce.”

The exemption had previously meant that registered health and care professionals did not have to self-isolate when travelling to England from abroad in order to ensure they could return to providing essential care and helping to strengthen the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

However, professionals returning from a country which has a travel corridor to the UK, and so is exempt from the self-isolation measures, will not be required to self-isolate. 

Masks “not mandatory” for patients in optical practices

New government regulations around wearing masks in public have outlined that patients are not legally required to wear face coverings when visiting optical practices, though industry representatives have recommended that patients are “encouraged” to wear a mask where they are not exempt.

The wearing of face coverings in shops became compulsory in England from 24 July, though the regulations also set out a list of settings where a face covering is not mandatory, including premises providing “wholly or mainly medical services”, such as dentistry and optometry.

The College of Optometrists updated its guidance on Friday to align with the government regulations, though clinical adviser, Daniel Hardiman-McCartney, commented: “Although this means it won’t be possible to legally enforce the wearing of face coverings, we recommend practices encourage their patients to wear face covering unless the patients has an acceptable reason resulting in an exemption.”

Speaking to OT last week as the Government released the new rules, Dr Peter Hampson, AOP clinical director, emphasised: “The AOP’s opinion is that it is good practice to insist patients wear face coverings while in practice – to help protect everyone in the practice.

“We believe that refusing to see patients who are not legally exempt from wearing face coverings, yet refuse to wear one, would not breach the GOS contract if you have carried out a workplace risk assessment that concludes that wearing face coverings is a necessary infection control and prevention measure in your practice.”

College of Optometrists confirms remote assessments in Stage One can begin

After receiving notice from the General Optical Council, the College of Optometrists confirmed that as of Monday (27 July) remote Stage One assessments for pre-registration can take place.

The remote assessments will only be available for pre-registration trainees on Stage One of the Scheme, who had already completed at least two visits before 18 March, when assessments were suspended.

Eligible trainees will be able to discuss their current situation over a video meeting and whether it is appropriate for them to resume assessments. Once agreed, the trainee will be given at least two weeks’ notice to prepare for assessment.

Trainees who have been furloughed or recently become unemployed will still be able to complete remaining Stage One assessments.

The College emphasised it was working to resume the Scheme for Stage One trainees who have not yet completed two visits, as well as Stage Two trainees and those still to enrol. The Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) is also still set to take place in September, but as these aspects of the scheme require some face-to-face elements, head of assessment, Alistair Shaw, said the College is working to finalise the ways these can be safely assessed.  

Changes to furlough and self-employed support outlined

The Government has set out how financial support for employees and self-employed workers will operate during the coming months.

statement by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, described plans to require employers to contribute towards the costs of furlough from August, with furloughed employees able to work part-time from July.

In June and July, the Government will continue to pay 80% of the wages of furloughed staff as well as employer National Insurance and pension contributions.

However, from August the employer will be required to cover employer National Insurance and pension contributions.

In the following two months, as well as paying employer National Insurance and pension contributions, the employer will also need to cover a portion of the furloughed staff member’s wages: 10% of wages in September and 20% of a furloughed employee’s earnings in October.

Mr Sunak also announced the availability of a second final payment for those eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

The second grant is a single instalment that covers 70% of a worker’s average monthly trading profits over a three-month period. It is capped at £6570.

The first payment to self-employed workers was 80% of their average monthly trading profits, capped at £7,500 in total for a three-month period. Workers have until 13 July to apply for the first payment with applications for the second grant opening in August.  

An update from the AOP

The AOP has produced an online page for members that contains the latest information relating to the evolving COVID-19 situation, as well as answers to frequently asked questions, that is being updated as the situation develops. This can be access on the AOP website.

To view OT's coverage of COVID-19 in full, click here.

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transforms the way optometrists practise, OT is sharing the experiences of optometrists across the UK. If you, or a colleague, is interested in sharing your story, please get in touch by email.