Face masks ‘not mandatory’ for patients in optical practices, according to new government regulations

Despite government guidance, the AOP has emphasised that optometrists should still feel confident insisting patients wear masks unless they’re legally exempt

masked man
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Patients and customers will not be legally required to wear face masks when visiting optical practices, despite face coverings becoming compulsory in shops in England from today (24 July).

The government has set out the new rules around the wearing of masks in public, as the requirement for use in enclosed public spaces comes into play.

The regulations set out a range of settings in which wearing a face covering is not mandatory, including dentists and “opticians,” as well as hairdressers, entertainment venues including cinemas, concert halls and theatres, visitor attractions, and gyms and leisure centres.

However, Dr Peter Hampson, AOP clinical director, has highlighted that this guidance does not align with the initial advice provided by the College of Optometrists.

Dr Hampson said: “We understand there is some confusion about whether patients should wear face coverings in practice following the change in law in England today, 24 July.

“Although the College guidance initially stated that face coverings are mandatory in optical practices, the new legislation actually says optometry services are exempt from the definition of shops where face coverings must be worn.”

The College changed its guidance on Friday to align with that of the government, suggesting that face masks are not compulsory within optical practices. In an email, however, the College noted that despite the legislative change it still recommends that "practices encourage their patients to wear face coverings unless the patient has an acceptable reason resulting in an exemption." 

In light of the conflicting guidance, Dr Hampson emphasised to OT that if optometrists feel uncomfortable with patients who are not exempt from wearing masks failing to do so, they should feel within their rights to insist that a mask is worn.

Dr Hampson said: “The AOP’s opinion is that it is good practice to insist patients wear face coverings while in practice – to help protect everyone in the practice.

“We believe that refusing to see patients who are not legally exempt from wearing face coverings, yet refuse to wear one, would not breach the GOS contract if you have carried out a workplace risk assessment that concludes that wearing face coverings is a necessary infection control and prevention measure in your practice.

“The AOP has guidance on conducting risk assessments, which can be accessed at www.aop.org.uk/coronavirus-updates/covid19-back-to-work-risk-assessment.”

Children under the age of 11 and those with certain respiratory or cognitive conditions are legally exempt from wearing masks. Those with “visual impairments, with a restricted field of vision, particularly if any residual vision is at the lower edge of the normal field of view” are among those who are exempt.