Coronavirus: the optics briefing

PPE Portal to open to optometrists, COVID-19 funding discussions continue, and shielding guidance paused in England


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. 

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.

GOC launches education consultations

The General Optical Council has launched a series of consultations over proposed changes in education and training requirements.

The GOC first launched a two-week consultation into proposed temporary changes to its Optometry Handbook and Supervision policy, made necessary by the continued impact of COVID-19 on educators.

In a statement, the GOC shared: “We recognise that rapid changes are required to ensure that clinical experience can still be obtained, remains safe for all, and ensures that students learn the right skills, knowledge and behaviour during the pandemic.”
The consultation, which is due to close on 6 August, will consider temporary changes effective from 1 September 2020 for the incoming cohort of students and trainees in the next academic year.

The GOC has also launched its Education Strategic Review consultation into the proposals to update its education and training requirements, suggesting the proposals respond to the changing landscape, “not least as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The proposed documents will ensure the qualifications we approve are responsive to a rapidly changing landscape in the commissioning of eye-care services in each of the devolved nations,” explained Leonie Milliner, GOC director of education.

“They respond to the changing needs of patients and service users and changes in higher education, not least as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased expectations of the student community and their future employers.”

Commenting on the ESR consultation, the AOP’s policy director, Tony Stafford, told OT that education is an area “seriously affected by the pandemic” as universities moved to remote learning, and with pre-reg placements impacted.

“We know that many members will continue to face COVID-related challenges as we move into the autumn and winter, so government and NHS support will remain a top priority,” Mr Stafford said, explaining how the policy team is working to support members. “But there are also important proposals for long-term strategic changes to the way optometrists are trained in the UK, and we need to make sure those work in our members’ interests.”

The policy team will be developing the AOP’s response to the consultation with the Policy Committee and AOP Council and will take account of the interests of different groups of members. Members are encouraged to get in touch via the community forums or through the email inbox at [email protected]. Keep an eye out for OT’s discussion with the policy team on the ESR, due to be published online soon.

Optical practices to receive COVID-19 support funding for July 

NHS England has confirmed that optical practices will receive a support payment in July as discussions continue with the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) about ongoing funding arrangements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NHS England had previously suggested that financial support for optical practices would cease at the end of June.

The OFNC and NHS England have been negotiating financial arrangements around ongoing support to cover the extra costs of providing eye care following COVID-19, such as disinfection procedures and the cost of personal protective equipment.

The latest update on funding will mean average GOS payments for July will be made in August in the usual way.

The OFNC is urging NHS England to ensure that those practices in relatively deprived areas and which largely provide NHS care, as well as domiciliary providers that continue to face difficulty reaching vulnerable patients, can “survive and continue to provide NHS eye care in the recovery phase of the pandemic.”

Outlining the temporary extension to the COVID-19 funding through July, the OFNC highlighted: “We hope that we will be in a position to make a statement about these issues soon.”

Lockdown continues in Leicester for further two weeks

The local lockdown in Leicester City, Oadby and Wigston, will remain in place for a further two weeks, following an update by Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock on 16 July.

The update included a change to the lockdown boundary in Leicester, with restrictions to be lifted in some wider areas of the county.

Leicester entered a local lockdown on 29 June. At the time, the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was 135 cases per 100,000 people – three times higher than the next highest city. This meant Leicester accounted for 10% of all positive cases in the country, the Government said.

Announcing the update on local restrictions, Mr Hancock quoted new data that showed a decrease in the seven-day infection rate in Leicester to 119 cases per 100,000 people, while the percentage of people who have tested positive has dropped to 4.8%.

“These are positive indicators, especially in light of the huge increase in testing in the local area,” Mr Hancock said. “But they still remain well above the national average, and the average for surrounding areas.”

The Government announced that from 24 July it plans to remove restrictions on schools and early years childcare, and take a more targeted approach on non-essential retail, replacing the blanket closure with local powers to open them where safe and close “where necessary.”

Restrictions on travel, social gatherings and the hospitality sector will remain in place, however.

In the short term, all we can do is make sure we’re here for our patients when they need us

Riyaz Jasat, principal optometrist and partner at Evington Eyecare, a Hakim Group practice in south-east Leicester

While “not surprised” by the decision, Leicester City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby expressed frustration at what he called a “sledgehammer approach” of the Government for “an issue in a very small part of the city.”

He added, “We will of course continue with our efforts to eradicate the virus, which are having some success, and that work will remain our key priority.”

In the meantime, the city’s mayor has urged the Government to provide more support for local businesses affected by the extended lockdown and allow the council to release £10 million in unallocated business grant funding that the council had previously been told cannot be distributed.

“Clearly, using this £10 million of business grant funding that hasn’t been allocated could help provide immediate aid to struggling businesses,” he added.

Leicester optometrist: “We are looking for light at the end of the tunnel”

When the local lockdown was initially implemented, Riyaz Jasat, principal optometrist and partner at Evington Eyecare, a Hakim Group practice in south-east Leicester, told OT it felt like the practice had “taken two steps forward, but now we are taking three steps back.”

Sharing an update on practising under the localised restrictions, Mr Jasat said: “We’re looking for light at the end of the tunnel.”

“It’s certainly been tiring. We do have support behind us from Hakim Group, which has been a great help and we’re planning ahead for the long term. In the short term, all we can do is make sure we’re here for our patients when they need us.”

Lockdown measures will be reviewed again in two weeks’ time on 30 July.

OCCS annual report: common complaints about optical services revealed

The Optical Consumer Complaints Service (OCCS) has revealed the most common topics of patient complaints in 2019-2020.

The service received 1611 referrals over the year, up 8% from the previous year. The number of referrals in March 2020 dropped below the monthly average of 134 to 104.

“During the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the OCCS saw a fall in the number of referrals into the service,” the annual report noted.

A small number of COVID-19 related enquiries were received by the OCCS, which mainly related to the closure of practices.

“These enquiries were managed proactively and often involved putting the consumer and practice team in contact,” the report stated.

The latest OCCS annual report provides a snapshot of common complaints in the optical sector

Centenarian and Yesterday violist completes fundraising walk for Moorfields Eye Charity

A centenarian has raised more than £16,000 through a 10-kilometre fundraising walk for Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Kenneth Essex, who is receiving treatment for macular degeneration in both eyes at the hospital, walked one kilometre each day in the ten days leading up to his 100th birthday on Monday (20 July).

“The treatment I have received has been exceptional, especially at this difficult time,” he noted on his JustGiving page.

The fundraising walk is another milestone in Mr Essex’s eventful life. After serving in the Royal Marines during the second world war, Mr Essex became a professional viola player. He performed in string quartets that provided the music for Fawlty Towers and Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

A statement on the Moorfields Eye Charity website noted that the funds raised by Mr Essex would be invested in sight-saving research, education and patient care.

“We are so grateful to Ken… From us all at Moorfields Eye Charity, we wish him a very happy 100th birthday.”

Masks to be mandatory in shops in England from 24 July

Face coverings will become mandatory in shops in England from 24 July according to new plans outlined by the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, in a statement to Parliament.

As the numbers of new cases of the virus decrease and with the phased reopening of further aspects of retail, the Government said it wanted to give “more confidence” to the public to shop safely and enhance protection for those working in shops.

Masks are already mandatory on public transport and in NHS settings in England, which Mr Hancock said has been "successful in giving people more confidence to go on public transport and to a hospital setting when they need to,” in addition to providing additional protection where people are unable to keep 2 metres apart.

Under the new rules, people who do not wear a face covering could face a fine of up to £100, and shops can refuse entry to an individual who refuses to wear a face covering without an exemption.

Children under 11 and individuals with certain disabilities are exempt.

Norville manufacturing operations saved through Inspecs acquisition

Inspecs has acquired Norville’s manufacturing operations from administrators in an agreement worth £2.4m.

The agreement includes £1.2m of freehold property for Norville’s Gloucester site, with the remainder for stock, plant, intellectual property and contracts.

We thank all customers for continuing to support us, and UK optics, as we resume business as usual from today

Norville Group

Inspecs also intends on retaining part of the lens manufacturer’s management team and employees, though was not able to provide more information on what figure this might represent when asked for comment.

The lens and optical manufacturer had entered administration on 3 July, appointing the accountancy and business advisory firm, BDO, as administrators.

Welcoming the news in a statement on its website, the Norville Group stated: “We are delighted to announce that Norville is now part of the Inspecs Group plc family. We thank all customers for continuing to support us, and UK optics, as we resume business as usual from today.”

The retail arm of the group, Norville Opticians, was saved from administration in a sale to the Hakim Group earlier this month.

The FMO pledges support for 100% Optical, with Media 10 to take on Optrafair from 2021

This week, the Federation of Manufacturing Opticians (FMO) pledged its full support for the trade show, 100% Optical, in a move it suggested would provide “much needed security and clarity” for the industry.

The Optrafair event, which has been cancelled for 2020, is set to be taken over by Media 10, the organisers behind 100% Optical, from 2021.

In a statement announcing the “joining forces” of the FMO and Media 10, the organisations said: “The industry can now be assured there is one major annual exhibition, 100% Optical at London’s ExCel exhibition centre, which now has full industry support from the FMO and other major optical bodies.”

The Optrafair event began in 1978 and has been running for over 40 years.

With the event backed by the AOP, its official partner and education provider, along with the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO), and now the FMO, event director for 100% Optical, Nathan Garnett said he felt there is “huge potential for us to take 100% Optical forwards.”

Commenting on the news, Henrietta Alderman, chief executive of the AOP said, “As the official partner to the show, the AOP are pleased that the optical bodies representing the different constituent parts of this industry can come together at 100% Optical in 2021. The sector as a whole will benefit from this new collaboration and together we will continue to lead the profession through a changing landscape.”

Industry welcomes single-event focus

Industry reactions to the joining forces of the FMO and Media 10 have appeared widely positive, with many suggesting the news would provide a greater focus and enable exhibitors and attendees to streamline event resources.

In a tweet welcoming the news, Positive Impact suggested that uniting the two events would provide “a much-needed focus on one event,” adding “a major annual optical exhibition is what many of us have been asking for, for too long.”

The Hakim Group CEO, Imran Hakim, also called the decision a “great example of collaboration,” commenting that the move would provide a “much stronger opportunity for the show organisers as well as exhibitors, and ultimately a much better proposition for the show attendees.”

Meanwhile, Tom Wolfenden, director of independent brand, Wolf Eyewear, called it “really positive news” for optics.

“Historically Optrafair was every two years, then more recently 100% Optical brought more excitement back to the industry, but two shows every year was putting a real strain on exhibitors’ budget and making them choose between the two. Now there is going to be one message, one place to share ideas, one show,” he explained.

The FMO and current event organisers, MA Exhibitions (a division of the Mark Allen Group) confirmed this week that Optrafair 2020 will not be going ahead, revealing the decision to cancel the event was as a result of the “continued uncertainty surrounding delivery of events as a result of COVID-19.”

Summer statement: Government subsidises six-month work placements for under 25s, furlough scheme winds down 

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has announced a raft of measures aimed at bolstering the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In his summer statement on Wednesday (8 July), Mr Sunak announced a £2bn kickstart initiative to help young people enter employment.

The programme will assist young people on Universal Credit aged between 16 and 24 who are at risk of long-term unemployment.

Employers will be reimbursed for 25 hours a week at the National Minimum Wage for each young person employed under the initiative for a period of six months.

Mr Sunak also confirmed that the furlough scheme will wind down at the end of October.

Employers will be incentivised to continue to employ furloughed workers with a £1000 bonus paid to businesses for each furloughed worker who remains in employment through to January 2021.

Other measures aimed at rejuvenating High Streets include a six-month cut in VAT from 20% to 5% for food, accommodation and attractions.

An ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount of 50% will be available from Monday to Wednesday in August, up to a maximum value of £10 per head.

Restaurants and cafes that sign up to the initiative will be reimbursed by the Government for the subsidised meals.

NHS Digital data provides a snapshot of GOS sight tests across England

NHS Digital has published its annual round up of General Ophthalmic Services (GOS) activity between March 2019 and March 2020.

The latest statistics reveal that 13,355,060 NHS sight tests were carried out in England over the past year – an increase of 1% on the previous year.

Since 2002, there has been a 38.2% increase in the annual number of state funded sight tests carried out in England.

The number of domiciliary sight tests carried out in England over the past year was 462,250. This is 1.8 times as many sight tests as were carried out in this setting in 2002.

Domiciliary sight tests make up 3.5% of all NHS-funded sight tests.

Last year more than half a million (592, 334) vouchers were issued for the repair or replacement of spectacles.

This is a 3.1% increase on the previous year.

General Ophthalmic Services statistics at a glance

Norville Group enters administration

Optical manufacturer, The Norville Group, has gone into administration, with 134 employees made redundant.

Business restructuring partners, Simon Girling and Christopher Marsden of the accountancy and business advisory firm, BDO, were appointed joint administrators of the company on 3 July.

The Norville Group employed 162 staff across four sites in the UK. BDO confirmed that 134 employees have been made redundant, while a skeleton staff of 28 people have remained to help wind up the business, including completing orders already in progress.

The retail division of the group, Norville Opticians, was saved from administration in a sale to the Hakim Group.

Optical practice funding discussions continue with NHS England

Discussions are continuing between the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) and NHS England on the continuation of financial support for optical practices.

Temporary funding arrangements for practices ceased at the end of June, but NHS England is yet to announce whether further support will be made available.
The OFNC has confirmed that NHS England put a “very limited” proposal for further temporary funding to the committee on Thursday (2 July).

This offer was rejected by the OFNC as “inadequate and unworkable.”

“We know the continued uncertainty over future funding arrangements is causing immense difficulty and concern for eye care providers across England,” the OFNC highlighted.

“We are continuing to press NHS England to work constructively with us to address our proposals and develop a solution which is fit for purpose and meets the needs of patients, NHS England and NHS primary eye care providers,” the committee added.

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething puts spotlight on optometry in daily briefing

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething acknowledged the work of optometrists in a daily COVID-19 briefing by the Welsh Government on Tuesday (30 June).

Mr Gething highlighted that close to 20,000 patients have been seen by optometrists since March, including 5400 remote consultations.

A total of 9500 urgent eye care appointments were provided by the 87 Welsh optical practices that remained open during lockdown.

“We are now seeing practices offer a more comprehensive range of services as we move out of the red phase and into the amber phase for dentistry and optometry,” Mr Gething said.

“Those optometry practices that are ready are providing treatment for a wider range of eye conditions. People with the greatest clinical need will be prioritised,” he added.

Optometry Wales chief executive, Sali Davis, told OT that during lockdown the profession has been more involved in decision making around the delivery of optometric services than ever before.

“We have been fortunate, even in these troubling and tragic times, to work closely with Government to see services established,” she said.

These initiatives include the community eye casualty service, which would have taken far longer to set up in ordinary times, Ms Davis added.

“The data we have been able to collect during the last three months will, and is, being used in the discussions we are now starting to have with Welsh Government about eye care reform in Wales,” Ms Davis concluded.

Leicester lockdown: optometrists to provide urgent and essential care only

Eye care within Leicester will be restricted as a result of stricter lockdown measures in the region following a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The College of Optometrists confirmed in a statement on Tuesday (30 June) that Leicester practices can continue to provide urgent/emergency and essential care while the local lockdown is in force.

This means that eye care provided in Leicester will be more limited than the rest of England, where optical practices are beginning to provide routine care.

The General Optical Council welcomed the guidance from the College of Optometrists on the provision of eye care in Leicester following the local lockdown. 

Video puts spotlight on independent practices

A video tribute has showcased the work of independent optometrists throughout the pandemic, from sight-saving care to doorstep spectacle repairs.

The video depicts independent optical professionals holding signs describing how they have supported patients during lockdown.

Examples include repairing spectacles on the doorstep, delivering spectacles and prescriptions, helping isolated patients to retain vision, and mending broken spectacles for children.

Simon Burgess, of Think Training and the new online optical training programme Practice Made Perfect, told OT that many practitioners had continued to work during the COVID-19 lockdown, often in difficult circumstances, to serve their communities.

A video showcasing the work of independent optical practices during the COVID-19 crisis

OFNC continues to negotiate practice funding arrangements with NHS England

The Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) is continuing discussions with NHS England about future funding arrangements for GOS contractors in England.

Payments that were in place to support practices in England during lockdown finished at the end of June. NHS England has not yet confirmed what support will be available during the recovery phase of the pandemic.

The OFNC has previously highlighted the extra costs that practices will face as they begin to provide routine care, including the cost of personal protective equipment and other infection control measures.

The committee has warned that a premature end to COVID-19 funding could result in practice closures, emphasising that putting in place measures to reduce the spread of infection will at least halve practice capacity.

PSA “seeking information” from GOC in response to petition

A petition that calls for the GOC to be investigated for an alleged conflict of interest by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has gathered 7261 signatures so far.

The petition urges the PSA to place restrictions on who can serve on the board of the GOC to avoid an alleged conflict of interest.

Concerns were raised in the petition about a statement released by the GOC that was interpreted by some as meaning that optometrists could have provided routine private eye care during lockdown.

The petition also highlights perceived failures by the GOC in holding companies accountable, regulating online sales of contact lenses, and concerns over the possible introduction of a degree apprenticeship.

On 19 June, the PSA released a statement noting that it is seeking information about the matters raised in the petition from the GOC and will make a further statement in response to the petition by mid-July.

A spokesperson for the AOP stated: “Any regulatory body needs to be – and be perceived as – impartial in the positions it takes, and must treat all its registrants fairly and consistently. We are therefore pleased that the PSA is looking into the matter.”

The GOC acknowledged the petition in a revised statement on the reopening of optical practices published on Wednesday (24 June).

While stating that the GOC position had not changed, the optical regulator acknowledged that the wording in its initial statement on the reopening of practices could have been clearer.

“We are sorry for the confusion that caused,” the GOC noted.

The optical regulator clarified that optometrists were able to provide both private and NHS eye care during lockdown but only in line with guidance from the Government, professional bodies and the NHS.

This meant that both private and NHS eye care was restricted to either urgent/emergency care or essential care before lockdown was eased.

One metre plus: optometrists react to easing of lockdown restrictions in England

From 4 July, English residents will be able to enjoy a raft of daily freedoms that Britons largely took for granted before the start of lockdown in March.

Hairdressers will begin the task of salvaging lockdown haircuts while pubs and restaurants can also welcome customers through their doors again.

The advice on social distancing has also changed within England from two metres to one metre plus.

This means that members of different households can be one metre away from each other as long as other measures, such as face coverings or screens, are in place to prevent the transmission of the virus.

Lincoln optometrist David Burghardt told OT that the easing of the two metre rule would have little impact on his practice’s current plans which aim to keep staff and patients two metres apart where possible.

“Where a closer approach within one metre is required in a clinical or dispensing environment, then personal protective equipment will be worn,” he said.

Mr Burghardt added that an easing of social distancing will give the practice more flexibility when designing a new customer journey as the number of people with COVID-19 reduces and patients become more confident in public places.

Middlewich-based optometrist Cathryn Tripp also told OT that her practice is taking a cautious approach to the easing of the two-metre rule.

“I expect we will remain the same for a while until we all feel comfortable at work, and then rethink,” she said.

Hakim Group operations director, Zubair Hakim, observed that the relaxation of social distancing within England could help to improve patient footfall and confidence.

“We have already seen a positive increase in the number of patients through our doors with the reintroduction of routine eye tests, so reducing the social distancing limit is the logical next step and follows the trend of what we are seeing in other countries,” he said.

Countries that apply a social distancing rule of one metre include China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania and Singapore.

Mr Hakim noted that a distance of two-metres is still preferable under Government guidance so practice teams will still be keeping a distances of two metres where possible.

“The message to our teams is that we now need to focus on the shift from hibernation to operational re-ignition with cautious optimism,” he concluded. 

Glasgow Caledonian University investigates how COVID-19 affects the eyes

UK researchers have established a survey to find out whether COVID-19 affects eye health.

The online survey asks those who have had COVID-19 to answer a series of questions about their vision.

Optometrists and vision scientists, Dr Mhairi Day and Dr Dirk Seidel, established the survey after hearing anecdotal reports that COVID-19 had affected the prescription of patients.

Dr Day explained: “This is an initial online survey to determine if people who have had COVID-19 suffer from eye problems and to get an indication of general trends and we can look into those in a bit more detail in a second study.”

Routine GOS sight tests recommence in England

Optical practices can provide routine services to both private and NHS patients following a much-anticipated announcement from NHS England.

Practices have been providing routine tests to private patients since 15 June but confirmation that routine NHS services can resume only came from NHS England on Wednesday (17 June).

NHS England highlighted that practices can provide a full range of General Ophthalmic Services (GOS), as long as a standard operating procedure including social distancing and disinfection measures is followed.

The second significant communication from NHS England to the optical sector since the pandemic began also confirmed that current funding arrangements for practices will cease at the end of June.

However, NHS England has agreed to work with the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee on the financial support that practices will need from 1 July onwards to cover aspects of the transition, such as prioritising remote consultations and purchasing personal protective equipment. 

Treasury Committee puts spotlight on groups missing out on financial support

The Government has been urged to assist those who have missed out on financial support packages in the wake of COVID-19 by the House of Commons Treasury Committee.

In its report, Economic impact of coronavirus: Gaps in support, the committee found that many people have endured financial hardship while unable to benefit from Government financial support.

“Over a million people have lost livelihoods while being locked down and locked out of support,” the report notes.

“The Government must assist these people if it is to completely fulfil its promise to do whatever it takes to protect people from the economic impact of coronavirus,” the document highlights.

Groups that have been particularly affected by gaps in support include limited company directors, self-employed workers with profits over £50k, both employed and self-employed new starters, and freelancers or those on short-term contracts.

key groups

PHE report: “The fear of spreading [the virus] to family members is a concern for BAME members”

A report by Public Health England (PHE) has investigated disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates among different groups.

The report found that older age groups, men and those from a BAME background were more likely to die from the disease.

In the opening of the review, PHE state that the report: “Confirms that the impact of COVID-19 has replicated existing health inequalities and, in some cases, has increased them.”

The PHE analysis suggested that, after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death than people of White British ethnicity.

The report stated that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean, or other Asian and Black ethnicities had “between 10 and 50% higher risk of death” compared to white British people.

The review did not explore the reasons for this disparity, stating that the relationship between ethnicity and health is “complex” and likely to be the result of a variety of factors.

The report suggested that people of BAME communities are likely to be at an increased risk of acquiring the infection, potentially because, “BAME people are more likely to live in urban areas, in overcrowded households, in deprived areas and have jobs that expose them to higher risk.”

Optometrist and AOP councillor, Nizz Sabir, told OT that there is a need for a standardised risk assessment tool for practitioners returning to practice.

He emphasised the mental health impact of the statistics for BAME practitioners.

“The fear of spreading [the virus] to family members is a concern for BAME members,” Mr Sabir said.

“There is a need for understanding the risks in highly dense populations and potentially the risk to the workforce and service provision in those areas where there is a large BAME population,” he added.

Brewdog releases Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA

Beer company, Brewdog, has responded to controversial claims by Dominic Cummings that he drove to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’ with a new “short sighted beer for tall stories.”

The brand’s twist on beer goggles goes by the name Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA and echoes the lettering of a Snellen chart on its label.

Profits from the beer will go towards funding Brewdog’s production of free sanitiser for the NHS and health care charities.

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. 

NHS and Public Health England encourage optometrists to assist contact tracing efforts

Clinical workers, including optometrists, are being encouraged to assist Government efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 through contact tracing.

The NHS and Public Health England is aiming to recruit between 3000 to 4000 healthcare professionals to the Public Health England Contact Tracing Service as home-based clinical contact caseworkers.

The job description and person specification, which includes working hours, pay rate and working from home requirements, is available online.

AOP clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson, told OT: “Thousands of contact tracers are required, and these roles need to be filled by skilled healthcare professionals with clinical experience. As a regulated profession, optometrists have the transferable skills needed to perform this role to the highest standard.”

“Make time for your eyes”: AOP launches campaign highlighting the importance of eye care in lockdown

The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is reminding the public of the importance of eye care as part of a campaign that highlights a number of ways in which the lockdown has affected people’s eye health.

Reminding the public: “There’s never been a more important time to look after your eyes,” the campaign highlights the importance of wearing eye protection during DIY, regular screen breaks, and cautions the public around buying contact lenses online.

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Henry Leonard, optometrist and AOP spokesperson, highlighted the ways the public can be looking after their eye health, as the AOP launches a new campaign on the importance of eye care during the lockdown

“Unfortunately, the shift in lifestyle is taking a toll on many people’s eye health,” explained Optometrist and AOP spokesperson Henry Leonard, highlighting an increase in DIY-related injuries seen across hospitals and practices: “Patients are needing to have foreign objects removed or chemical burns treated because they are not wearing safety goggles.”

Oxford Eye Hospital is amongst those reporting a spike in serious eye injuries as a result of lockdown DIY-projects, reporting six in one week in April – where one in every two to three weeks would be typical.

“Other areas of concern include people buying contact lenses from unregulated suppliers online and a surge in people experiencing headaches and eye strain as they turn to television, mobile and computer screens for work and entertainment,” Mr Leonard added.

To share essential eye health advice, the AOP has launched a range of graphics and videos for use on social media, accessible online.

“There are many things people can still do to protect their vision – including making sure they have eye protection to do DIY, taking regular breaks from their screen and buying contact lenses from a reputable supplier,” Mr Leonard continued, also highlighting resources for patient advice on the AOP website.  

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.