Coronavirus: the daily optics briefing

Guidance on furloughing staff, locums hit by income threshold and Clap for Carers event puts a spring in the step of hospital optometrists

COVID-19 graphic 27 March

The OT team is committed to supporting optical professionals during this challenging time by providing the latest news on how novel 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.


AOP provides guidance on furloughing staff

Clarification on how employers should approach furloughing staff has been published on the AOP website.

The guidance covers the steps that employers should take and what they should consider when furloughing staff.

Eligibility for the scheme and holidays during furlough are also detailed, alongside a downloadable furlough leave letter template.


Income threshold means some locums to miss out on Government support

While Government measures to support self-employed workers during the COVID-19 emergency will provide much-needed relief for many locum optometrists, some may not be eligible for support due to the income threshold.

The Government subsidy, announced on Thursday (26 March), covers 80% of the monthly wage of workers who earn the majority of their income through self-employment.

However, those who have average annual earnings greater than £50,000 will not be eligible for any support.

I am afraid I will fast become bankrupt

Phil Leeb-duToit, locum optometrist

The Government has estimated that only 5% of self-employed workers will be ineligible for the scheme.

However, the proportion of locum optometrists left without support may be greater because of higher average earnings within this workforce than across all self-employed workers nationally.

The College of Optometrists’ 2015 Optical Workforce Survey found that around one in five optometrists (22.3%) had an annual income greater than £50,000.

The average annual income of optometrists was £44,328.

Welsh locum optometrist, Phil Leeb-duToit, told OT that his net income is £47 over the annual limit so would not be able to claim any support.

“I am afraid I will fast become bankrupt. It is a very unfair bail-out package,” he said.

Mr Leeb-duToit suggested that a fairer system would be to support all self-employed workers up to the first £50,000 of their earnings, in a similar manner to tax bands.

“That would be a far fairer system,” he said.

AOP policy adviser, Kathy Jones, told OT : “We know from past member surveys that a substantial number of optometrists earn more than £50,000 a year, and this will include self-employed locums.”

If you are a locum worker, what was your annual income before the COVID-19 outbreak?
  • £0–£20,000

    3 11%
  • £20,000–£30,000

    4 15%
  • £30,000–£40,000

    4 15%
  • £40,000–£50,000

    2 7%
  • £50,000–£60,000

    7 26%
  • £60,000–£70,000

    5 19%
  • £70,000 +

    1 3%

Clap for our Carers: “It has given me a little spring in my step”

It started on some streets with a single clap before reaching a crescendo of whistles, hoots and foot stomping.

In other neighbourhoods, the Clap for our Carers event on Thursday evening (26 March) saw the contents of UK kitchen drawers transformed into a percussion section and banners unravelled from balconies.

The nation joined together in isolation to thank NHS workers, including the hundreds of hospital optometrists working in the UK.

It was really moving and heart-warming

Holly Higgins, hospital optometrist


Holly H


Holly Higgins, an optometrist at Sheffield Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, told OT she could hear people clapping for miles around her house.

“My neighbours were all out showing appreciation. It was really moving and heart-warming and has given me a little spring in my step today, under some very challenging times working on the front line in ophthalmology,” she shared.


Essilor and Luxottica close industrial sites, EssilorLuxottica retracts company outlook

Essilor has temporarily closed its industrial sites in France, while Luxottica’s manufacturing plants in Italy and other smaller locations have also suspended activity.

Stores in Europe and North America are also complying with lockdown measures put in place by the respective governments.

However, Essilor highlighted that its production facilities in China are now “back to full speed and have spare capacity,” while Luxottica’s manufacturing plants in China are also back to normal levels.

Meanwhile, EssilorLuxottica has withdrawn its company outlook for 2020, published on 6 March, suggesting that it is “no longer valid” in light of the evolving COVID-19 emergency.

While the company saw “strong growth” at the beginning of the year, EssilorLuxottica reported “business conditions began deteriorating in March as the virus shifted from impacting predominantly China to entire regions of Europe and North America.”

The company said it expects revenue will further decelerate during the second quarter of the year, “with a material impact on profitability.”


Government announces support for self-employed – but workers may have to wait until June to access funds

Locum optometrists have cautiously welcomed a Government announcement outlining measures to provide financial support to the self-employed in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that self-employed workers facing financial difficulties would have 80% of their monthly wages covered by the Government in a briefing on Thursday evening (26 March).

This would be provided for an initial period of three months and would be calculated as a monthly average of the previous three years’ earnings. The monthly Government subsidy would be capped at £2500.

The scheme would be open to those with profits up to £50,000 per year who are already self-employed and have a completed tax return for 2019.

Mr Sunak noted that he hoped people would be able to access the scheme by June.

There have been calls from within optics to provide greater support for locum workers, after announcements on Friday (20 March) that the Government would subsidise a significant portion of employee wages.

The measures bolster the support available for self-employed workers, who were previously only eligible for £94.25 a week in universal credit as part of Government support for businesses affected by COVID-19.

Locums are an integral part of any optometry practice; we cover days at short notice, we cover holidays and we step in where required…We shouldn’t be discriminated against because we are self-employed

Abid Noor, locum optometrist


According to the AOP’s 2018 Optometrists’ Futures survey, around one in four optometrists works as a locum in the UK. 

Locum optometrist, Shamina Asif, told OT that the announcement would help her to cover her costs “comfortably” when she receives the lump sum in June.

“I think that the package that has been put forward by the Chancellor for the self-employed is a fair and positive step forward,” Ms Asif highlighted.

“I can understand that with there being five million self-employed people in the UK it will take time to process in addition to processing those that are employed,” she added.

Scottish locum optometrist, Abid Noor, told OT that many locums have been worried about their livelihoods leading up to the Government announcement.

“It plays heavily on the mind when your job is uncertain,” he said.

After measures were announced to assist employees, support for locums was the “elephant in the room,” Mr Noor emphasised.

“Locums are an integral part of any optometry practice; we cover days at short notice, we cover holidays and we step in where required…We shouldn’t be discriminated against because we are self-employed,” he said.

AOP Councillor and locum optometrist, Alison McClune, said: “We’re pleased to see the Government has provided some clarity regarding self-employed workers today – and we hope that it will go some way to alleviating the financial hardships currently being experienced by our locum optometrist members – who play a vital role in supporting our healthcare system. The measures do seem broadly in line with an employed person but we’re currently reviewing them closely to understand the impact and potential benefit for members, and the steps they should take.”

The AOP has called for the Government to make greater support available to locum optometrists, highlighting that thousands of locum optometrist are in a “desperate financial situation” through no fault of their own. 


Difficult decisions: practices across the UK close their doors

Optometrists across the country have left their practices not knowing when they will return following UK-wide lockdown measures introduced to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Others have drastically refined the services they offer in line with the latest guidance.

Optical practices are permitted to remain open under the tough new restrictions, but should only offer urgent, emergency or essential eye care.

A poll of 95 OT readers found that four in 10 worked for practices that had closed completely following the introduction of lockdown restrictions, while the remaining respondents were only offering urgent or essential care.

Optometrist and Leightons franchisee owner, Indie Grewal, closed his practice in St Albans on Monday (23 March) evening.

“You feel like a spear has gone through your body because there is a realisation that you are closing your doors,” he told OT.

Although his team is no longer at the practice, Mr Grewal continues to work offering emergency phone support to patients.

“I feel responsible for the people I serve,” he said.

“We are part of the same community and as a primary eye care practice, we are a community practice that wants to be here for our patients,” he added.

“You feel like a spear has gone through your body because there is a realisation that you are closing your doors”

Indie Grewal, optometrist and Leightons franchisee owner

Allister and Simpson Opticians practice owner, Mark Simpson, explained to OT that the Cheshire practice has decided to remain open for emergency care.

“We are the only optical practice in the area and we want to be there for our patients,” he said.

Mr Simpson will incorporate video consultations into his practice in order to triage which patients require urgent care.


Government clarifies that optometry practices can remain open under lockdown

The Government has produced further guidance detailing which businesses are exempt from a requirement to close in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

In the guidance, ‘opticians’ are named as an example of a medical service and are therefore an exception to the UK-wide lockdown that was announced on Monday evening (23 March).

Other listed medical services include dental surgeries, audiology clinics, physiotherapy clinics, chiropody and podiatry clinics and other professional vocational medical services.


Keeping safe in practice

UK optical bodies have outlined steps practice staff can take to reduce the risk COVID-19 poses to staff and patients.

Practices that continue to open following the lockdown should offer remote consultations where possible, stop offering routine sight tests and only offer appointments for essential and urgent eye care which cannot be provided by phone, video or email.

Optometrists should follow Public Health England guidance on limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, which includes maintaining a distance of at least two metres from others as well as regular handwashing and cleaning. 

Examples of what qualifies as urgent and essential eye care services are found in a joint statement by the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC), Optometry Scotland, Optometry Wales and Optometry Northern Ireland.

 


Site of UK’s largest annual optical event to be converted to field hospital

The ExCeL conference centre in East London, which hosted this year’s 100% Optical event in January, will be converted into a field hospital as part of efforts to meet demand during the COVID-19 crisis.

NHS England announced that the NHS Nightingale Hospital will be ready for use from next week.  

It will initially offer 500 hospital beds, equipped with oxygen and ventilators, with the NHS stating that capacity could increase up to “several thousand” beds if necessary.

100% Optical event director, Nathan Garnett, told OT that ExCeL is one of the most modern venues in the world.

“The team there will do an amazing job of transforming the venue and I personally wish to thank them for the commitment and long hours of work they have ahead of them in a combined effort to support our amazing NHS," he said.


Lockdown: frame suppliers adapt services

Frame suppliers and brands have adapted services during the outbreak, with several temporarily closing.

Wolf Eyewear has closed its office and online shop temporarily and is therefore closed for orders, while International Eyewear will also temporarily close. Although its website will remain active for browsing, it will be unable to send out any orders.

Eyespace is closing its offices and warehouse facilities until further notice. Though the company will not be operational, it will be monitoring emails to provide support in emergency situations.

Meanwhile, others have adapted operations. Silhouette International employees have been working from home where possible. The company has temporarily suspended production at its Linz facility in Austria, though the dispatch warehouse remains open with reduced staffing.

Ed Bird

It's amazing how quickly people can come together even though we are physically apart - I've been giving frame demonstrations via video calls.

Ed Bird, founder Bird Eyewear

Dunelm Optical will remain open to serve its clients, though has reduced staffing capacity in its frame and glazing factories.

Speaking to OT, Dunelm Optical’s managing director, John Procter, explained: “If we are not there, the opticians that open for urgent appointments will have nowhere to send that work to be glazed, so we feel we have a duty to the independent sector which we service.”

The Bird Eyewear team is working remotely and is still able to ship some items, founder Ed Bird told OT, adding: “It's amazing how quickly people can come together even though we are physically apart – I've been giving frame demonstrations via video calls.”


Lockdown: the impact on optical practices

Specsavers released a statement following the lockdown confirming that the multiple will cease routine testing and focus on essential and urgent care.

Boots Opticians confirmed temporary store closures in Scotland and Wales from 24 March, while England and Northern Ireland stores closed at the end of day on 25 March. Hearingcare stores will also shut their doors.

The multiple confirmed that a small number of Boots Opticians stores will remain open to care for those with essential eye and hearing care needs.  

Optical Express published a statement confirming that the multiple is not performing routine consultations or sight tests.

However, a small number of clinics will remain open to provide essential or emergency clinical care.Vision Express has confirmed that its stores have temporarily closed, cancelling all pre-booked or routine appointments.

From 27 March, a small number of stores operating reduced opening hours will offer urgent and emergency eye care appointments, which will be limited to one customer per hour to ensure social distancing.

Vision Express said it had received confirmation that it should continue offering services for urgent eye care needs, “especially for isolating elderly people and key workers” as well as in order to “divert patients” from GPs and hospital emergency eye departments.


Small study finds “low risk” of ocular transmission

Viral cultures of 64 tear samples from 17 COVID-19 patients did not detect SARS-CoV-2; the virus that causes the novel pandemic disease.

The researchers suggest that transmission through tears, regardless of the phase of infection, is “likely to be low.”

The research has been accepted for publication in Ophthalmology


World view: how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected optometry across the globe

Around the world optometrists and practices have faced increased demands to protect staff and patients, and to manage the financial strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread to more than 180 countries and territories.

Australia

In a post on 23 March, Optometry Australia shared it had received confirmation from the Federal Health Minister that optometry practices can “currently remain open (if they wish).” The association advised practices to plan ahead for any potential changes in advice due to the “fluid” situation and added that it was: “Seeking to advise governments on how time-sensitive and emergency optometric care can continue to be provided, should more extensive service shut downs be mandated.”

United States

The American Optometric Association (AOA) shared on Twitter on 17 March that, based on COVID-19 updates: “The CDC recommends doctors of optometry postpone routine eyecare visits while prioritising urgent and emergency visits and procedures to ensure staff and patient safety.”

The AOA is urging senators to prioritise providing physician relief, and is also working to ensure the physician relief bill will include an AOA-backed package of grants and loans to assist optometry practices that have been forced to close or curtail hours.

Meanwhile the American Academy of Ophthalmology has recommended practitioners cease providing any treatment “other than urgent or emergent care.”

France

In France, the Government has allowed the opening of optical stores. However, the Association des Optométristes de France suggests the opening was decided “without being able to provide opticians with safety equipment.”

According to the association, some professional unions have refused to open as a result of the health risks, though in order to respond to urgent needs they have proposed a volunteering-based system. 


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.

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