NHS England rejects sector proposals for financial support for struggling practices

The OFNC says the decision “shows a lack of regard for the small number of practices that still need help,” and confirmed negotiations will not continue

optical equipment
Pexels/Victor Rega
NHS England has rejected proposals to provide further support for struggling practices most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, confirming that no additional financial support will be made available.

The Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC) has countered the arguments against further support, calling it “bitterly disappointing news” for practices.

While NHS England will not continue negotiations at this time, the OFNC, which is made up of representative organisations across the optometry profession including the AOP, has committed to continue to monitor the need for support.

The decision follows a call from the OFNC in February, urging NHS England to put in place targeted and short-term financial support for struggling practices.

The OFNC proposed a “targeted safety net scheme” to support practices which had seen a fall of 50% or more in GOS activity, along with continued top-up support for domiciliary providers, which have continued to struggle to access patients.

In a statement on 5 March, it was revealed that no further support would be granted, with NHS England indicating that monthly GOS claims data had been relatively stable in January and February 2021.

NHS England also noted that additional support offered in autumn 2020 to fixed practices in areas of deprivation was taken up by fewer than 200 practices.

Rejecting the arguments, the OFNC asserted that the GOS data provides an aggregate picture, including payments for previous months submitted on paper forms and could also be distorted by the rollout of eGOS.

“NHS England accepts that despite the positive picture painted by the data, many practices can show they are suffering from a significant reduction in demand for face-to-face care – but it is not willing to help,” the OFNC said.

The negotiating body also voiced disagreement with the interpretation of a low uptake of the support in autumn.

“We had warned at the time that the complex and restrictive criteria for the support would be a barrier to take-up,” the committee said.

The context of lighter lockdown restrictions for much of England at that time also played a part, the OFNC noted, explaining: “Without the strong ‘stay home’ messaging from Government that has affected patient confidence since January.”

Despite the perception of a low-uptake, the OFNC added that the support provided “an important safety net which supported some 200 practices and their patients.”

In its statement, the OFNC said it had “repeatedly” explained that the proposed additional support would not be needed by many practices but would enable practices needing help to stay open.

NHS England will not be taking negotiations any further at this time, the OFNC reported.

“We know this will be a blow for the whole sector, and bitterly disappointing news to practices that may now have to reduce their operating hours or turn away patients they have supported throughout the pandemic,” the OFNC said.

The organisation added: “It shows a lack of regard for the small number of practices that still need help, having struggled to continue to meet eye care needs and provide frontline services throughout the pandemic.”

The negotiating body has committed to continue to meet with NHS England to review the impact of the pandemic and monitor the need for future support.

The OFNC’s statement can be read in full on the AOP website.