On the ground

Coronavirus: on the ground in Durham

Independent practice owner and specialist optometrist, Simon Berry, on the decision to close for routine appointments and the desire to help in the crisis

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As the coronavirus 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: [email protected]

I am an optometrist and practice owner from Durham, also working as a specialist optometrist at Sunderland Eye Infirmary. I opened my own practice without a patient base 18 years ago. 

When thinking about the impact coronavirus (COVID-19) has had on my practice, I think it’s important to highlight that this crisis is affecting everyone. This is an exceptional situation and no-one really knows what the best thing to do is. Everyone is doing their best. 

When COVID-19 first started to hit the news it didn’t really have an effect on my practice. We are generally very busy and my own appointments are booked up for four weeks.

Anyone working in healthcare could see that as the virus was spreading rapidly; the only way to reduce the spread of infection was to avoid close contact. In our industry, however, that is almost impossible.

I decided that the best I could do under the circumstances was to close the practice to the general public. Staying open was just going to put my staff and patients at risk, as almost everything we do requires close contact.

Financially of course, it is a very risky decision. We are a strong business but even with the government help there is no guarantee that we will survive financially. And we are not unique; optometric practices across the country are facing the same struggle.

Everyone has the same mindset: that they want to help as much as they can


As the lockdown started and with our community self-isolating, it was clear to everyone that the crisis was much bigger than any one business. Everyone has the same mindset: that they want to help as much as they can. I must admit to feeling a bit helpless. I can’t make ventilators, I can’t make PPE, but I thought I would try and help our community and patients as much as possible.

In these times you get a bit of a reality check and realise that 90% of what we do in practice is not essential. I wanted to make sure that we did our best with the other 10%. So, although the practice is closed to the general public, we are still seeing emergencies, we have a local Minor Eye Conditions Service (MECS) scheme running, and are trying to repair glasses and respond to all queries.

We are in contact with our local hospital and trying to help out as much as we can to avoid people going into hospital. The situation is changing almost daily and we will change with it to help out where we can.

I have a business answering service that answers the phone and emails the queries to me, and all deliveries have been re-directed to my home address. We have a ‘submit a query’ section of our website where patients can upload photos of red eyes or broken glasses. We are also starting video triaging for MECS patients.

The one thing that is difficult at the moment is the rules around furloughing. As a small business, we had no choice but to furlough workers, otherwise we certainly would not survive financially. Even with furloughed workers, I have around six weeks before the money runs out.

However, a furloughed worker is not allowed to do any work at all. This means that I am trying to run the practice remotely myself. That is, all the emergency eyecare, repairs and queries. We have gone from a team of four optometrists, a dispensing optician and four dispensing assistants to just me.

The one good thing in all this is how most in the industry are helping each other. My optical coherence tomography (OCT) broke the week before this all started. It is currently waiting to get repaired but I really needed an OCT to help with triaging and seeing emergency patients.

I put a request on LinkedIn to see if anyone could help and Birmingham Optical have been very kind and are going to lend me a machine for a few weeks. I think this shows how the industry is coming together to help at this time.

Simon Berry Optometrist