Providing eye healthcare in the new lockdown

Plus information on access to COVID-19 vaccines

Patient having an eye test
Photo taken before COVID-19

Following the announcements on 4 January 2021 of new national lockdowns in England and Scotland, and previous measures in Wales and Northern Ireland, our understanding is that optical practices can remain open to provide eye care for patients, prioritising emergency and essential care in line with current guidance from the NHS, Governments and the College of Optometrists. This guidance requires the use of infection prevention and control measures, including the use of appropriate PPE.

Many AOP members are understandably concerned about the risks of continuing to provide face to face eye healthcare in the current circumstances. We accept that under the current NHS, Government and College guidance, practices are able to offer routine care where capacity allows. However, if a practice continues to offer routine care at this time, it must maintain stringent measures to manage the risks of COVID-19 infection.

In our view, this should include the use of longer appointment times than before the pandemic. As we said in our member guidance published in November 2020, we think that appointment times of 30-40 minutes are safe and achievable while complying with strict infection control requirements.

If members have concerns about a practice’s approach to COVID-19 risks, they should raise those concerns with the practice. Members can contact the AOP’s employment and clinical teams if they have questions about how best to do this or need support.

We are monitoring the situation closely and are in contact with the College, NHS England and the UK optometry bodies. We will update members immediately if our view of the risks involved providing care during the current lockdown changes.

As part of the Optometric Fees Negotiating Committee (OFNC), we are also in ongoing discussion with NHS England about support for optical practices affected by the pandemic. Our understanding is that the new top-up business grants announced by the Chancellor today are for businesses that have closed because of the pandemic, so will not be available to optical practices that remain open.  

Access to COVID-19 vaccines

Members have asked whether they will have early access to COVID-19 vaccines. The UK Government guidance published in December 2020 confirmed that the definition of ‘frontline healthcare staff’ includes optometrists and others who have face-to-face contact with patients, including non-clinical staff in primary healthcare settings. Optical practice staff are therefore included in the second priority group for access to vaccination, frontline health and social care workers.

It has not yet been confirmed when people in this group will be offered the vaccine, but the Prime Minister’s statement on 4 January said that all those in the top four groups will be offered the vaccine by mid-February. We will provide further information on the timing and practical arrangements for the vaccination of optical staff as soon as we have it.