“The grant has effectively saved our practice”

Nicola Gatehouse, director of Ball & Gatehouse Opticians, shares how a government support grant could help the practice to see through the difficult times ahead

Ball & Gatehouse

Support measures to help businesses affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak were welcomed by many concerned practice owners when outlined by the government earlier this year.

Now one practice owner has told OT that receiving a grant “could mean the difference between keeping the business and going under.”

The government measures outlined ranged from a High Street business rate freeze, to loans and small business grants. According to the Treasury over a quarter of a million small businesses have benefited from the grant schemes as of 15 April, with more than £3bn paid out over the first two weeks.

Nicola Gatehouse, director of Ball & Gatehouse Opticians in Wirral, admitted that on first hearing the government’s plans to put support in place she was sceptical about what funds would be available, the eligibility requirements, and how easy it would be to apply.

The practice is currently operating for urgent appointments as well as providing services to fix broken glasses or deliver contact lenses. The practice is also part of the Wirral Minor Eye Conditions Service (MECS) scheme.

We felt our only option was the grant. We applied the day it went live

 


Describing the decision to stop all but emergency and essential care, Ms Gatehouse said: “It was a very sad time, but safety had to come first and I couldn't be responsible for putting our team or our patients’ lives at risk. It was the right decision to make.”

Amongst the difficulties faced by the practice, finances were a key concern.

“We took £300 last week,” Ms Gatehouse explained. “That will not pay our bills, our rent, our equipment and practice loans, our computer system fees, our electricity bill, our gas bill, director wages ¬– the list goes on.”

As the business met the right criteria for support based on the shop’s rateable value, the practice owners took the decision to apply for the grant.

While the furloughed staff would have 80% of their wages covered by the government, Ms Gatehouse highlighted: “As directors of a limited company we weren't entitled to furlough ourselves as we're keeping the practice ‘open’.”

“Even if furloughed, our dividends wouldn’t be covered and that makes up the majority of our take home pay,” she added. “We felt our only option was the grant. We applied the day it went live.”

Commenting on how the funds will support the business through the outbreak, Ms Gatehouse said: “The grant has effectively saved our practice.”

Though the practice will receive an average of NHS claims monthly, Ms Gatehouse highlighted that “our NHS claim is only a sixth of our total income.”

“Having the grant money means we can pay our bills whilst we are closed and have a business left to come back to when this current situation eases,” she added.

The practice owners sourced the application forms on their local council’s government website. Describing the process as “quick and easy”, Ms Gatehouse did advise that applicants ensure they have rates and bank statements to hand for the application.

Between a week and ten days after applying, the practice received communication that the application had been approved and the funds were received two days later.

Speaking about what she would say to practice owners on the application process, Ms Gatehouse said: “It could mean the difference between keeping the business and going under. I know the government haven’t got the help correct for all areas of business, but they’ve saved our practice and I am very grateful for that.”

The impact on business

Ms Gatehouse suggested that, at first, patients didn’t appear to take the social distancing guidance seriously, commenting: “Although some vulnerable patients cancelled their appointments, many other non-vulnerable patients were happy to come in.”

While following strict disinfecting standards in the practice, Ms Gatehouse said, “With no clear guidance from NHS England, even though NHS Wales had already stopped routine testing, Oliver and I took it upon ourselves to follow Wales' advice and stop all but emergency and essential care.”

The practice is now operating behind a locked door, answering telephone enquiries, taking deliveries and seeing urgent eye problems, as well as fixing or replacing glasses. Ball & Gatehouse Opticians are also running a home delivery service for contact lenses and glasses that were ordered pre-lockdown.

“We are part of the Wirral MECS scheme so are still providing emergency NHS eye care based on that,” Ms Gatehouse explained, adding: “The optician practices that remain open have been split into four teams or hubs to cover north, south, east and west Wirral.”

Each practice has been allocated days to act as a primary or secondary hubs for the area. Ms Gatehouse highlighted that local GPs or pharmacists have been given a phone number to ring if they have a patient with an eye problem, and that number is set to divert to the appropriate hub for that day.

“We triage the cases from there and either provide a video consultation and give advice based on that, or if we need to see the patient we arrange an appoint for them to come in,” Ms Gatehouse said.

As well as financial concerns, Ms Gatehouse emphasises that one of the biggest challenges the practice faces currently is access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I absolutely think that optometrists need PPE and a clear route of where to order that from, because at the moment we've hit a brick wall,” Ms Gatehouse said. “We cannot do our jobs as dispensing opticians or optometrists with a 2-metre safety zone, it's just not possible. I feel we've been overlooked."

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.

OT endeavours to keep the most up-to-date news on our website and this information was correct when published. However, the situation regarding coronavirus (COVID-19) is rapidly evolving. Please check OT’s rolling optics-specific coverage for the latest news and guidance on COVID-19.