“The most important thing for me is to provide for my family”
OT explores how the pandemic has affected the locum workforce
When Abid Noor’s Sunday shift was cancelled amid escalating anxiety about the spread of COVID-19, he did not think much of it.
The Scottish locum optometrist had no premonition of the profound and lasting impact the virus would have on optometry.
But the announcement days later that all optometry practices must close heralded a new chapter of sleepless nights for the sole earner and father-of-four.
“I thought ‘How am I going to survive financially?’ I have a mortgage, I have kids,” Mr Noor said.
“I went from a normal five-day working week to sitting at home and worrying about where the funds were going to come from,” he shared.
Thanks to his independent prescribing qualification and “a very understanding director,” Mr Noor was able to secure work triaging and treating emergency eye care cases across a group of five independent practices and estimates he is earning around two thirds of what he took home before lockdown.
Other locum optometrists across the UK have not been this lucky, with many out of work and some ineligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.
In contrast to employees, support for locum workers is restricted if their annual profits are above £50,000, if they became self-employed within the past year or if their self-employed work does not represent half of their income.
An OT poll of 500 locum optometrists found that 61% were not eligible for the Government support package.
Mr Noor highlighted that locum optometrists provide an invaluable service by covering sickness and days at short notice.
“It is a shame that we are always the first to go. It can be a really cold, brutal reality check,” he said.
“I know that is the nature of locum work, but this is a completely unprecedented situation. There wasn’t a choice whether to work or not to work. Everyone was forced to close,” Mr Noor highlighted.
It is a shame that we are always the first to go. It can be a really cold, brutal reality check
Looking ahead, Mr Noor believes that social distancing will result in lower testing capacity when routine sight testing commences and travelling greater distances to secure locum work.
“The most important thing for me is to provide for my family. I will do whatever it takes,” he emphasised.
A survey of more than 2800 AOP members at the beginning of May found that only around one in ten optometrists was continuing to work in a paid role.
Close to half of respondents were furloughed while around four in ten respondents were not furloughed but also not working.
These difficult circumstances have forced some optometrists to look beyond the profession for work, with one respondent taking on four jobs in other fields, including as a delivery driver and shelf stacker at a supermarket.
Asked whether he would consider work outside optometry, Mr Noor said his primary concern is covering his bills and supporting his family.
“If there was literally no work, I would do anything. I’m a good driver so I would consider driving or sitting the HGV test,” he said.
At the end of the day, we are healthcare professionals. When this virus does pass, we will be employable
Locum optometrist Gautam Passi practised six days a week in West London and Surrey before lockdown.
He now works one day a week providing essential eye care services at an independent practice in Fulham.
“It was incredibly sudden. As soon as lockdown was announced, everything closed. The demand for locums was non-existent really,” Mr Passi said.
Mr Passi is not eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme because he has been working as a locum for less than a year.
He has been able to cover his mortgage through savings and Universal Credit payments.
Despite the challenges that he is currently facing, Mr Passi is optimistic about the future.
“At the end of the day, we are healthcare professionals. When this virus does pass, we will be employable. Locums have always been an essential part of the optical workforce and will continue to be even after the virus,” he said.
“I haven’t spoken to a single locum who feels like they are out of a career,” Mr Passi shared.