“The most important thing for me is to provide for my family”
OT explores how the pandemic has affected the locum workforce
22 June 2020
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 10 optometrists was continuing to work in a paid role.
Close to half of respondents were furloughed while around four in 10 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.
My biggest worry…
Locum optometrists share their concerns following the COVID-19 pandemic
My biggest concern is the unknown. We have no clue as to when we might be able to go out and start practising and earning money. At the moment, there is just a big question mark.
My greatest concerns are financial ones. I'm the only earner in my household so my work is very important. Locums are at the bottom of the pile and I foresee it being a while before we get back to work, and when we do, I suspect our wages will be much lower than previously.
We need to know that employers will take our health and safety seriously, and that sensible PPE and social distancing measures will be observed. I'd also like to remind employers that we're still here. We're here to cover maternity leave, to cover sickness, and to provide extra days in the future should we find ourselves in the position of having a backlog of work to get through; those are exactly the reasons that locums exist in the first place.
Safety is my biggest concern; for myself, my patients and those whom I live with. I am also concerned about the availability of personal protective equipment, and whether we will have enough time for adequate cleaning, as well as donning and disposing of PPE. There are also issues with lowered rates and professionals not being paid adequately.
My main concern is keeping my patients safe. I haven’t worked since the COVID-19 lockdown. Many practices are shut, and those that are open only treat emergencies so demand for locums is low. I hope to return to work in June but this all depends on advice from the Prime Minister and governing bodies. We are in unprecedented times and will have to see how things go.
Many locums earn well in excess of the 50k watershed for self-employed assistance, or are limited companies so fall outside government support. Some are recently self-employed so miss out on assistance. We are all funding this time on our savings; the longer that this virus is with us, the closer some of us are getting to breaking point.
My biggest worry will be finding work after we leave lockdown. It will be difficult to find the work that I want, because it will be scattered everywhere. Recruitment platforms, like Locumotive, will help with that.
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