“The biggest problem we have at the moment is managing patient demand and expectation”

With the fourth stage of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown delayed, OT  spoke with optometry professionals about what practice looks like currently, and some of the challenges ahead

While a delay in the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown is unlikely to have a material effect on practices – which continue to operate under amber phase guidance with routine appointments and prioritisation of urgent and essential cases – many of the challenges that have arisen over the past few months remain.

With the date for the lifting of restrictions pushed back, OT reached out to a few practices to get a sense of what the situation is like in practice currently, as many balance COVID-19 safety measures with increased levels of demand, and consider the challenges that remain ahead as practices operate through the current environment.

On 14 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a four-week delay to step four of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, first detailed in February. This step would have meant the opening of the last few hospitality and event venues and that events could take place without capacity limits, as well as a change to current rules limiting gatherings.

In a statement announcing the change, the Prime Minister shared that though the vaccination programme has accelerated at pace, the Delta variant is “spreading faster than the third wave predicted in the February roadmap,” adding that the decision to delay the change would “give our NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.”

The move was welcomed by health professionals, with NHS Confederation chief executive, Matthew Taylor, commenting: “Health leaders will be relieved that the Prime Minister has listened to their warnings and extended the current lockdown restrictions.”

While the issue “is not clear cut,” Taylor noted, having “unintended consequences on the nation’s physical and mental health,” on balance two thirds of health leaders surveyed felt the original 21 June date would have been too soon.

The lockdown roadmap in practice: managing demand and a need for business clarity

Under current amber guidance, practices are open for routine services with prioritisation of emergency or essential appointments on a needs and symptoms-led basis, and with the continuing protocols of personal protective equipment (PPE), infection prevention and control systems and closed-door policies.

Simon Berry, optometrist and practice owner of Simon Berry Optometrist, noted that the announcement has little effect for the practice, sharing that rather than aiming towards proposed dates: “We are still trying to be as safe as possible for our patients and that means reacting more to local infection rates and sensible scientific advice.”

“That said, we are in a much safer place now with all staff having received their second vaccine and being lateral flow tested twice a week,” Berry added.

The practice is seeing patient confidence growing, the optometrist shared, highlighting “The biggest problem we have at the moment is managing patient demand and expectation.”

The practice clinics are set up in a similar vein to that of a GP practice, Berry said, and is “prioritising everything we do… We have different appointment slots for emergency, essential and routine appointments. We are also running two cancellation lists because the routine appointments are currently booking into August.”

He continued: “It’s still a very difficult time in practice, and we are just starting to see how the various lockdowns are affecting the NHS waiting lists. The next few months will certainly be interesting.”

Hakim Group head of business development, Luke Wren, agreed that the news “did not come as much of a shock” for the practices, adding that, unlike previous announcements through the pandemic, “this is just a delay and the current status remains.”

If businesses, optical or otherwise, are left in a state of limbo and without a clear picture of the extent of this delay, it will have a negative effect on the overall economic recovery

Luke Wren, Hakim Group head of business development

As a result, like Berry’s practice in Durham, the independent practices within the group are also expecting to continue seeing high consumer confidence.

He said: “These past few months, since restrictions began to lift, have been some of our busiest in recent memory, with sales reaching record highs. Clinics have gradually become busier and are continuing to hold up strongly as the pent-up post lockdown demand unwinds.”

Considering the progression of the Government’s roadmap, Wren suggested: “Due to the close proximity of our work, PPE and sanitising procedures may well be in place after ‘Freedom Day’, so I think the optical industry may well be one of the industries affected least by this delay.”

Sharing his sympathy for the industries heavily affected by the restrictions, he added: “Hopefully with the time it will give for more people to be double vaccinated, it will be worth it for all of us.”

For now, though, clarity is key, Wren said: “If businesses, optical or otherwise, are left in a state of limbo and without a clear picture of the extent of this delay, it will have a negative effect on the overall economic recovery. Any ambiguity in communication is the last thing the economy needs at this crucial period.”

How has your practice navigated the past few months, and what do you think is needed in the weeks and months ahead as the country works towards an end to the lockdown restrictions? Share your views with the OT team at [email protected].