Blueprint for eye care in England in the spotlight at Parliament

DUP MP for Strangford, Jim Shannon, led a Westminster Hall debate on a national plan for eye care in England

Pixabay/Adam Derewecki

A blueprint for eye care in England and the devolved nations was debated at Westminster Hall last Thursday (15 December).

The debate was introduced by DUP MP for Strangford, Jim Shannon. In January, Shannon led a debate on eye health and macular disease.

Shannon noted that progress has been made since January, with the appointment of the first national clinical director for eye care, Louisa Wickham.

However, he noted that progress in eye health policy within England has been fragmented, while planning guidance for eye health services in England do not contain longer-term ambitions.

“At present, every nation of the United Kingdom except England has some form of eye care plan, whether it is self-contained or part of a wider strategy,” he said.

SNP MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, Marion Fellows, noted that in Scotland all people are eligible for NHS-funded eye examinations.

“Universal access to healthcare is one of the Scottish Government’s key priorities, which is why free eye examinations for all were introduced in Scotland in 2006,” she said.

She highlighted that optometrists are the first contact point for any eye problems in Scotland.

“The Scottish Government intends to expand further the range of eye care services delivered in the community… That will include the management of stable glaucoma and treated ocular hypertension patients, and a national low vision service for visually impaired people,” she said.

Fellows emphasised that it is important for a national blueprint for eye health in England.

“In Scotland we do things differently, but we want everyone to benefit from our experiences and to have the same chance of good eye health,” she said.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care, Neil O’Brien, highlighted that in England the NHS funds free sight tests for many people – including those on income-related benefits, those aged 60 and over, and those at risk of glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

“We also provide help with the cost of glasses and contact lenses through NHS optical vouchers,” he said.

O’Brien highlighted that ophthalmology is the busiest outpatient speciality, with demand forecast to increase as a result of an ageing population.

“To help address these challenges, NHS England’s transformation programme is looking at how technology could allow more patients to be managed in the community and supported virtually through image sharing with specialists in NHS trusts. Current pilots for cataracts and glaucoma are allowing primary care practices to care for these patients and refer only those who need to be seen by specialists,” he said.

O’Brien acknowledged workforce challenges within ophthalmology.

“NHS England is developing a long-term workforce plan that will consider the number of staff and roles required and will set out the actions and reforms needed to improve workforce supply and retention. We have already invested in growing the ophthalmology workforce with more training places in 2022, but there is more to do,” he said.

Asked by Shannon about waiting times, O’Brien highlighted that two-year waiting times had been cleared within the NHS.

Investment in elective recovery would help to reduce waiting times, O’Brien said.

“The next milestone is to clear those waiting 18 months and then to work through the plan and bring down the numbers using that additional money over time, reducing those waiting the longest first and then steadily reducing the number of people waiting in total,” he added.

The Westminster Hall debate follows the second annual Westminster Eye Health Day in October, which was organised by The Eyes Have It partnership.

Introducing the debate, Shannon paid tribute to the contribution of The Eyes Have It to raise the profile of eye health.

“The work that the group does is incredible,” he said.

The Eyes Have It partnership aims to raise the profile of eye health and includes the AOP, the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, the Macular Society, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Fight for Sight and Roche.