On the ground

Coronavirus: on the ground in Norwich

Independent optometrist, Helen Hillis, tells OT  how she's managed during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The impact was subtle to start off with. At the start of March, we noticed that we weren’t as fully booked as we were in February. The over-70s started to self-isolate. Leading up to when people went into lockdown, it definitely became quieter. During that week, we also had people ringing up who wanted to have tests done before they went into lockdown.

On the Monday of the lockdown, we got the staff to deliver all of the glasses that were in practice. From that day onwards, we sent all staff home except for myself and my business partner Kate, who is a dispensing optician. The staff were paid up until the end of the month and then they were furloughed from April 1. Kate and I have been running the practice since then. We usually have 19 members of staff and now we are down to two.

It has been surreal. During the first week or two, more news was coming in and we were waiting for NHS England to make a statement. Kate and I found that it was hard to concentrate on things. We started writing a list and very slowly we are getting to tick things off it.

testing room
Optometrist Helen Hillis of Coleman Opticians

We have directed the phone lines to our mobiles. The patients can still contact us. I will triage on the phone or over WhatsApp any patients who ring up with problems. If we have to see them, we will get them into the practice on an appointment basis. We have seen quite a few foreign bodies, such as little bits of metal, concrete or dust. I think a lot of people have been doing DIY, cleaning out the shed, and things like that. I have triaged quite a few visual migraines caused by stress on the phone. Then there are the classic flashing lights and floaters that you have to see. On Easter Saturday, I saw six emergency patients.

We have had thank you letters and emails. Patients are pleased that we can help them


I am based at home. I will come into the practice in the morning and see any emergency patients booked in from the day before. We deliver any glasses or eye drops on our way home. In the afternoon I will answer phone calls and triage patients for the next day. I have gloves, masks, a slit lamp shield and safety spectacles. We clean everything down between patients.

I think optometrists have a role to play in keeping patients away from the GPs, the pharmacies and the hospitals. They are dealing with enough at the minute. We have quite a few patients come in who are new. I got a fireman new safety spectacles so he could drive his fire truck. We’ve had a lot of broken glasses posted through the door. There was a nurse who had broken her glasses and we’ve seen kids who have broken their glasses because they have been off school for weeks and they’re playing sport in the garden.

practice front window
Optometrist Helen Hillis’ Norwich practice.

We have had thank you letters and emails. Patients are pleased that we can help them. I had an 85-year-old woman who rang up who had a stye in her lower lid. I was able to talk to her over WhatsApp, tell her that she didn’t need to come into the practice and drop some antibiotics in to her. When we were cancelling patient appointments, some of the patients enjoyed having a little chat with us. If patients are living on their own and they are self-isolating, they are not seeing anyone.

In terms of personal protective equipment, we had gloves in the practice anyway and we sourced some masks in early March. We had a delivery of masks and gloves from our clinical commissioning group. We have safety spectacles in the practice, and we got slit lamp shields from Zeiss. We’re not worried about running out at the moment. If we saw patients every day for a month we would have enough.

• As told to Selina Powell.