“I'm terrified I’m going to lose my sight” pensioner describes agonising wait for cataract surgery

John Clifford explains his ordeal and the prospect of becoming virtually housebound as NHS waiting times in Northern Ireland amount to years

A 79 year-old patient who was diagnosed with cataracts over three years ago has now been told by his optometrist that further deterioration in his vision could mean he is no longer fit to drive, leaving him and his wife virtually housebound.  

Living in rural Greenisland, County Antrim, John Clifford and his wife live a mile and a half from the closest railway station. His wife does not drive and Mr Clifford recently had an operation removing a toe from his left foot – making it too difficult to walk any distance.

Describing the wait for the simple cataract surgery needed, Mr Clifford said: “I’m very fearful of sight loss. It is probably one of the most difficult things to come to terms with – especially when I know this type of surgery can take as little as five minutes.”  

While the delay in receiving treatment has created concern for Mr Clifford, his main source of frustration has been the lack of communication from the hospital trust following the initial referral from his optometrist.

After years of waiting, Mr Clifford says: “You get the feeling that you don’t really matter. Their priorities are elsewhere.”

Responding to how delays impact patients, Chief Executive of the Association of Optometrists, Adam Sampson said: “Sadly, we’re seeing delays in all forms of specialist care within the NHS and this is especially terrifying for those awaiting sight saving interventions. Very often it is the people who have worked and contributed to society their whole lives that find themselves robbed of any quality of life as they await treatment.”  

“Where someone has an NHS referral, our members report seeing anxious patients on an annual basis for many years before they eventually get cataract surgery. Some of our members are also seeing an increasing number of patients turning to private care but this simply isn’t an option for many.”  

Reflecting on a friend’s recent decision to pay for private treatment, Mr Clifford explains he is not in the financial position to do the same: “We have a fixed income. It would be a serious blow to our limited finances should we have to pay for this surgery.”   

Long waiting times for elective surgery have been a persistent issue in Northern Ireland. In January, Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Older People intervened in a High Court action over the length of hospital waiting lists. The case was brought by Belfast woman, May Kitchen, 77, who has been waiting for cataract surgery for over six years.

Explaining the need for a long term solution, Mr Sampson said: “Optometrists are playing a vital role in easing the backlog by providing post-cataract care in Northern Ireland but this is a symptom of wider issue. There needs to be a properly funded and cohesive strategy for eye care so that the clinical expertise of optometrists, who are trained to do more than they currently do, are used in full for the benefit of patients.”

Key data: NHS waiting times[i]

  • Nearly one in five people (354,756) in Northern Ireland are awaiting their first appointment with a consultant for treatment of some kind following referral
  • Three years and seven months is the average wait for routine cataract surgery from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust
  • Two years and six months is the average wait for urgent cataract surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital
  • Patients are waiting on average six years and two months for routine cataract surgery and 11 months for urgent referrals from the Western Health and Social Care Trust


For more information, please contact Serena Box, PR and Media Manager, at the Association of Optometrists, [email protected] or telephone 020 7549 2040.

Hi-res images are available via this DropBox folder.

Notes to Editors

The full story is available from industry journal, Optometry Today (OT).  

Association of Optometrists

The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is the leading representative membership organisation for optometrists in the UK. We support over 82% of practising optometrists, to fulfil their professional roles to protect the nation’s eye health. For more information, visit

Optometry Today

Optometry Today (OT) has a readership of over 17,000 AOP members and subscribers in print and online. The OT ABC audit certificate is available online: OT’s website offers daily news, interviews and in-depth features and analysis, plus exclusive access to over 42 CPD exams per year, including bi-monthly CPD video content. For more information, visit  

[i] Freedom of Information request submitted by Optometry Today, March 2022