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AOP shares statement on practising in the new lockdown

With new national lockdowns announced, the AOP has shared its understanding that practices can remain open, prioritising emergency and essential care, but has emphasised the need to maintain “stringent measures”

optometry equipment
Pexels/Karolina Grabowska
Following the introduction of new national lockdowns in England and Scotland, and with restrictions already in place in Wales and Northern Ireland, the AOP has written to members to address the implications for optical practices and to provide an update on vaccine access.

On 4 January, governments in both Scotland and England announced plans for new national lockdowns, in efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The lockdowns require the public to stay at home except in a limited range of cases, including for medical reasons.

In an update to members, the AOP outlined its understanding that practices can remain open to provide eye care to patients, prioritising emergency and essential care in line with guidance from the NHS, Governments and the College of Optometrists. This requires the use of infection prevention and control measures, including appropriate personal protective equipment.

The AOP acknowledged: “Many AOP members are understandably concerned about the risks of continuing to provide face to face eye healthcare in the current circumstances.”

While under the current guidance, practices can offer routine care where capacity allows, the AOP emphasised that if a practice continues to offer routine care, “it must maintain stringent measures to manage the risks of COVID-19 infection.”

Measures should include utilising longer appointment times than prior to the pandemic, the AOP said, referring to member guidance suggesting appointment times of 30–40 minutes are “safe and achievable while complying with strict infection control requirements.”

The statement continued: “We are monitoring the situation closely and are in contact with the College, NHS England and the UK optometry bodies. We will update members immediately if our view of the risks involved in providing care during the current lockdown changes.”

The AOP advised members that concerns regarding a practice’s approach to COVID-19 risks should be raised with the practice, with the AOP’s employment and clinical teams available to support members in how to do this.

Discussions ongoing for practice support

As part of the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC), the AOP also confirmed that it is involved in ongoing discussions with NHS England regarding support for practices.

The association indicated its understanding that the new ‘top-up’ business grants announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 5 January will only be available for businesses that have closed because of the pandemic, and so will not be available to practices remaining open.

Optometrists included in second priority group for vaccination access

The AOP also addressed access to COVID-19 vaccines for optometrists. The association highlighted UK Government guidance confirming the definition of ‘frontline healthcare staff’ as including optometrists and others in face-to-face contact with patients. This includes non-clinical staff in primary healthcare settings.

“Optical practice staff are therefore included in the second priority group for access to vaccination, frontline health and social care workers,” the AOP shared.

It has not been confirmed when this group will be offered the vaccine. In his address on 4 January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that “if things go well” it is anticipated that those in the four top priority groups will have been offered the first vaccine dose by the middle of February.

The AOP confirmed it would provide further information on the timing and practicalities regarding the vaccination of optical staff once this becomes available.