“A chairmanship characterised by COVID-19”

AOP chair, Mike George, on reducing AOP fees during the pandemic, responding to evolving professional pressures, and changing Council to reflect a diverse membership

bird flying away
Getty/ francescoch

When I became chairman of the AOP in the summer of 2017, I recall people asking me: ‘what are your aims, Mike?’ It is an understandable question. I was clear then, and am now, that the role is not about presidential missions and manifestos, but to act as a figurehead, to facilitate the Board and Council, and to support the chief executive to achieve the best results possible for members.

No one could have predicted the impact of COVID-19, and it has shaped the final year of my chairmanship. Many of the issues the AOP faced in 2017 remain – crucially among them being the changing role of optometrists and what they are paid. How the pandemic has affected the profession has served to heighten these questions. It has also placed new demands on the AOP staff to support members in practice – and to do so seamlessly, while working from home.

Looking back, the AOP’s decision to reduce membership fees by 20% in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a big moment – and one I am proud we made. The Board knew many within the profession were worried about their job security, health, family and finances. The fee reduction meant we used a large portion of the AOP’s reserves, but it was important the Board was able to take a big and ambitious step that would affect members meaningfully, alleviating the financial strain many were facing.

Throughout my chairmanship, our chief executive, Henrietta Alderman, has been by my side. Henrietta’s work to develop and re-shape the association over her eight-year tenure means, as she retires in June, she leaves the AOP stronger and more resilient than ever.

It was important the Board was able to take a big and ambitious step that would affect members meaningfully, alleviating the financial strain many were facing

Mike George, AOP chair

For Julie-Anne Little and Adam Sampson, our incoming chair and chief executive respectively, much work remains. The vast scale of NHS England and the Department of Health will always be a challenge – and we can draw lessons from the devolved nations. In a world shaped by COVID-19, the NHS needs to be reminded of optometry’s role as a key healthcare service. At times during the pandemic, professional bodies struggled to align their positions – and the AOP will need to continue to make sure leadership is provided to our members.

Now, more than ever, we need to be openminded about what the future might look like. The pandemic’s impact on hygiene and infection control is just one example of this. The AOP must continue to ask members for their ideas and views, and to listen carefully – but we also should remember that members expect us to work out the answers and fight for change.

For the AOP to remain relevant, we need multigenerational representation, reflecting different fields within the profession. We need to find out and understand our members’ aspirations. One way we have improved this is by changing the structure of the Council, with more appointed positions bringing in people with skills and background for different areas.

What makes the AOP so valuable to our members is that its staff provide constant support to them as and when they need it, while also looking at what is coming down the road and considering what the future of optometry, healthcare, technology, litigation and so on will be.

As our members’ scope of practice changes (and it inevitably will), we need to help them on this journey – be it what they do in the consulting room, what they do virtually, and what the demands are for optometry to take on work from other parts of the health service.

For the AOP to shape the future of the profession, it is crucial that members engage and contribute to the conversation. I wanted to influence my future so I got involved – and I urge members to do the same. As an optom once told me: “If you are not at the table, you might be on the menu.”