Perspectives

“The future that we envisaged as a medium to long-term shift is accelerating”

While grappling with the profound implications of coronavirus will take time, supporting registrants exercising professional judgement in the delivery of eye care is key, writes chief executive and registrar at the General Optical Council, Lesley Longstone

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a massive impact on the optical sector – and on the General Optical Council (GOC).

Following Government guidance, we closed our physical office on 18 March and shifted into remote delivery of our core regulatory functions. In May, we successfully closed the annual renewal process, dealing with more than 3000 calls from registrants wanting to understand their options. The result was registration levels on a par with what we would expect in any other year.

We have also delivered our first ever remote hearings using Microsoft Teams, which again have gone remarkably well. Throwing up new challenges as you might expect, but with the positive engagement of all parties, we have been able to progress some cases that otherwise would have been postponed, with all the negative impact that has on registrants and complainants alike.

Remote meetings are the norm now, with weekly NHS and sector body meetings focused on COVID-19, through to our all-staff and Council meetings being held remotely for the first time ever in May. I’m proud of the way staff at the GOC have responded to the triple challenge of continuing to exercise our regulatory responsibilities, the overnight shift in ways of working, and most importantly the need to support the sector in responding to the additional challenges that COVID-19 has brought.

We agreed early on that we needed to prioritise work that would enable the sector to respond to the challenge of COVID-19, removing any regulatory barriers that might prevent our registrants from doing the right thing to protect the public in line with Government advice. While our standards of practice remain the same, we recognised in these extraordinary circumstances that our normal expectations about how they are delivered might not be sensible or even possible.

To address this, we issued a joint regulatory statement outlining how we will regulate during this time, and consulting with professional bodies, released further statements on areas such as the supply of spectacles and contact lenses and working in different settings. You can find our statements and the latest information on our dedicated COVID-19 page on www.optical.org.

We agreed early on that we needed to prioritise work that would enable the sector to respond to the challenge of COVID-19, removing any regulatory barriers that might prevent our registrants from doing the right thing to protect the public in line with Government advice

Lesley Longstone, chief executive and registrar at the General Optical Council


Many of our statements leave room for professional judgement, as no two situations will ever be the same. We don’t want to restrict our registrants from doing the right thing by being too prescriptive and have made the commitment that when they act in good conscience, for the public benefit, exercising professional judgement in all of the circumstances that apply, we will support them.

The future in fast-forward

Our education providers have responded magnificently to the need to reconsider the way in which their courses are delivered. Many of those changes have simply needed to be notified to the GOC, but where approval has been required for more significant changes, these have been turned around in quick time.

Our remaining challenge is the scheme for registration. We have had positive initial discussions with the College and are expecting detailed proposals imminently.

The implications of COVID-19 for our Education Strategic Review are profound. The future that we envisaged as a medium to long-term shift is accelerating toward us at a rate of knots, attaching greater urgency to the work. At the same time, we recognise that there are so many other pressures on our education providers and the sector at large that we need to work at a pace that will enable them to engage and importantly, enable us to learn from the COVID-19 experience and what is happening right now in practices, urgent care centres and hubs across the nations.

Many of our statements leave room for professional judgement, as no two situations will ever be the same. We don’t want to restrict our registrants from doing the right thing by being too prescriptive and have made the commitment that when they act in good conscience, for the public benefit, exercising professional judgement in all of the circumstances that apply, we will support them

Lesley Longstone, chief executive and registrar at the General Optical Council

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has affected the optical professions and the way we regulate. While much is unknown, we remain committed to protecting the public and supporting our registrants so they can continue to provide safe and high-quality eye care to patients.