Support through difficulty

The Optical Benevolent Fund saw its highest number of enquiries last year due to the impact of the pandemic on optical professionals and their families

man looking out of the window

The Optical Benevolent Fund has shared a reminder of its services for optometrists and their dependents and highlighted its upcoming annual general meeting (AGM), after receiving a record number of enquiries during the pandemic.

The Optical Benevolent Fund of the AOP and the College of Optometrists provides support, advice and financial assistance for optometrists and their dependents facing difficult circumstances.

The Fund received 82 enquiries between February 2020, when the effects of the pandemic first began to be felt in the UK, and September 2020. This is compared to the 10 to 15 enquiries the Fund would normally expect to receive in a year.

From the enquiries, 24 of those related to COVID-19 resulted in a full application and 16 were awarded grants.

Speaking to OT, Lynne Brown, administrative secretary for the Optical Benevolent Fund, said: “During COVID-19, the people worst affected were locums whose work was suddenly terminated, those who had work visas but not full immigration status so couldn't claim state benefits, people who had only recently started locum work and did not have accounts histories lodged with HMRC, or those who had just started new jobs or were between jobs and not able to be furloughed.”

Of the enquiries that did not go on to make a full application, the Fund was able to signpost other sources of help. Many people also found their situation eased following the introduction of the Self-Employment Income Support scheme.

Reasons for grants awarded during the pandemic ranged from general housekeeping expenses, and rent and mortgage payments, to examination-related fees for pre-registration optometrists, a laptop computer, and nursery fees.

A further nine beneficiaries were awarded grants during 2020 for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, with grants including support in the form of contributions to counselling sessions, furniture and utilities, rent and childcare fees.

Since September 2020, the Fund has received 12 new enquiries and also continues to support three longer-term beneficiaries.

“We have helped with the cost of a new secondary school uniform, noise-cancelling headphones, re-training for an optometrist who could not continue with optometry for health reasons, and general support for an optometrist who is permanently disabled,” Brown shared.

Reflecting on the enquiries now being received, the Fund suggested: “In general, and from the pattern of enquiries we are receiving, it seems that the profession has generally recovered from COVID-19, and optometrists are back at work with plenty of work available.”

The Fund noted that in the height of the pandemic last year, support was needed to meet immediate expenses, whereas now support has shifted to longer-term concerns. 

Support in action: Optometrist B’s story

A successful optometrist for 12 years, B lived with his wife and three young children in their own home. But after beginning to experience some physical problems, he was diagnosed with a medical condition that would mean he would have to give up his profession and primary source of income.

As he was unable to continue in his career, B made the decision to re-train in a profession that he would be able to undertake with his medical condition, enrolling on a psychotherapy Master’s course.

The Benevolent Fund provided support with a monthly grant, alongside the purchase of electronic items to help him with his studies and enable him to enter another professional field.

“The Fund recognised B’s determination to progress and achieve personal goals and it ensured that he was able to remain in his own home and continue to support his wife and children, as well as his elderly parents,” the Fund shared.

B graduated with a distinction and as valedictorian, achieving one of the highest marks in the history of the institute at which he was studying.

Though the pandemic made finding a job after graduation more challenging, he has begun building his own psychotherapy practice. He is financially independent and has been offered a place on a PhD course.