Leicester practices return to lockdown: “We have taken three steps back”

As stricter lockdown measures are resumed in Leicester, practices are returning to a restricted level of service

Leicester practice
Practices in Leicester have described the complex feelings of returning to emergency and essential eye care services, as a surge in COVID-19 cases in the region leads to the re-introduction of strict lockdown measures.

Where practices had been on a trajectory to return to a level of routine eye care, those in Leicester are limited to providing urgent, emergency and essential care while the local lockdown is in place.

Independent practice, Edmonds and Slatter Opticians, operates four practices across Leicestershire. One of its four practices, located in Glenfield, has been affected by the local lockdown and will return to essential and emergency eye care services.

Glenfield Opticians
Edmonds and Slatter Opticians’ Glenfield practice falls within the Leicester lockdown zone

“It’s all slightly more complicated, but we could have been in a worse position if we were a non-essential retailer or in the hospitality industry,” explained Amy Coleburne, PR for Edmonds and Slatter Opticians.

She adds that, unlike non-essential retail businesses which will close over the local lockdown, the practice will still be able to serve essential or urgent needs.

When the initial lockdown began, the group had been due to open a new practice, in Kibworth, but the pandemic brought a change of plan. Ms Coleburne said: “It finally opened its doors on 22 June, with a much smaller fanfare than usual. We will celebrate later, when appropriate.”

Meanwhile, the practices in Lutterworth and Glenfield had closed the doors, but patient care and contact was still available through the Blaby practice by phone, email and social media. Staff returned to practices on 22 June, but now the Glenfield practice has become a part of the Leicester lockdown zone.

Glenfield Optom
Days after returning to lockdown, optometrist Hamel Bhundia, working at Edmonds and Slatter Opticians’ Glenfield practice, has been onsite handling optical emergencies

All the practices have been operating a triage and screening service to assess whether patients should be seen in practice and to allocate them with a relevant appointment slot.

Ms Coleburne said: “The Glenfield practice will remain staffed as we are an essential medical service provider that works hand-in-hand with the NHS, not a non-essential retailer. Staff will have more additional questions to ask people wishing to visit the practice as routine testing is again temporarily off the table there.”

With a review of the local lockdown due on 18 July, the practice will be operating in a restricted manner for the next few weeks, taking into account guidelines from the governing optical bodies and UK Government.

“Initially our main concerns are keeping our patients and team COVID-safe and providing constantly accessible eye care for those who need it,” Ms Coleburne said. She added: “Our team have been amazing and keen to help provide every service we are permitted, wherever we possibly and safely can.”

Riyaz Jasat, principal optometrist and partner at Evington Eyecare, based in south-east Leicester, describes the introduction of local lockdown measures as feeling like the practice had “taken two steps forward, but now we are taking three steps back.”

The practice, which is part of the Hakim Group, had been operating for emergency and essential care over the past few months. Staff had been furloughed, calls were diverted to Mr Jasat’s mobile, and he was carrying out video consultations and emergency and essential eye care.

We were operating fairly well for one and a half weeks and suddenly, we had to cancel all our routine appointments and furlough our staff again

Riyaz Jasat, principal optometrist and partner at Evington Eyecare

Though the lockdown had been a “stressful and challenging” situation, Mr Jasat said, “We were guided excellently by the Hakim Group, with webinars and practice strategy packs being sent out immediately. We were in a fortunate position where we had all the answers at the end of our fingertips for the lockdown.

“We were excited when we learnt that we could move back to some form of normality, and staff could return to work one at a time for routine testing to hopefully commence,” he explained.

With a few members of staff back in the practice, along with a triaging system, full PPE and disinfection procedures in place, the practice had been “ticking on nicely” Mr Jasat said, though they had only been able to see up to seven patients a day.

“We were operating fairly well for one and a half weeks and suddenly, we had to cancel all our routine appointments and furlough our staff again,” he said.

Mr Jasat described the feelings of the team, commenting: “It is upsetting to the staff because we put a lot of effort into getting back on track.”

While the furlough scheme provides some reassurance, “Actually, they would rather be in work and get back to some form of normality.”

For Mr Jasat, one key concern around returning to restricted services has been over how patients will respond.

“Having sent out the reminders for appointments, we are now closing the doors again and the phones are diverted to my mobile again. They must be wondering what is happening,” he explained. He added, however: “We’ve had a few knocks on the door from people saying, ‘I hope everything’s alright, we really feel for you.’”

The longer-term business implications of a second lockdown are also causing concern, along with the additional “catching up” that will be needed to meet the needs of patients who have been due a routine appointment over the past few months.

The practice has also emphasised the need for confirmation that those practices in Leicester that are returning to emergency or essential care will continue to receive the average GOS fee, after COVID-19 financial support ceased on 30 June, with Mr Jasat commenting: “It needs to be resolved imminently.”

Despite the added stresses, Mr Jasat feels he has the procedures and equipment in place for when the practice will be able to, once again, return to routine services.

In the meantime, however, the support and direction from optical colleagues and from the Hakim Group has been a positive, and the team has been keeping in touch over WhatsApp to keep up morale.

“We’ve been talking about the positives. We’ve had some wonderful reviews of what we have been doing, like delivering spectacles by hand to a patient’s door. Patients appreciate the extra mile we’ve gone to ensure we care for them,” Mr Jasat explained.