Brexit: The sector prepares

29 March 2019, the day the UK leaves the European Union, is rapidly approaching. What will the ramifications of Brexit be for optometrists?

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Brexit is approaching its endgame. No one quite knows what is going to happen after the greatest economic, structural and administrative change to the UK since it joined the Common Market in 1973 – or even since the end of the Second World War. 

Brexit is likely to affect recruitment of support staff and professionals from Europe, the delivery of hospital eye services, the supply and regulation of optical devices from the EU, research funding, and working practices for optical businesses. Acuity asked a group of industry experts to explain what changes we can expect – and any opportunities that lie ahead.

Ann Blackmore, Director of Policy and Strategy at the Federation of Ophthalmic and Dispensing Opticians: There isn’t going to be a day-one cliff edge with sudden sweeping changes. Optical practices will open their doors as per normal on 30 March and carry on trading. For example, in respect of services such as sight tests, the rules won’t change. Visitors from abroad, including non-EU countries, are subject to the same criteria as UK residents and that will continue. 

There will also be no change in respect of workforce issues such as employment rights or data protection. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 brought most existing EU law into UK domestic law. And there’s a transition period for any EU staff, so by and large employment issues will remain the same for the short to medium term.

What we are less sure about is the regulation of optical devices. There are lots of issues here, but one is the European CE marking system for medical devices, which the UK is a part of. In the event of ‘no deal’, the government has said it would recognise the CE mark for medical devices [including spectacle frames and lenses] for a time-limited period. This would ensure the continued supply of medical devices in the UK by allowing devices which are permitted in the EU/EEA to be marketed in the UK as at present. The question is, what happens thereafter?

Without an agreement, there would no longer be a body in the UK authorised to issue CE markings for medical devices. UK manufacturers of medical devices would need to obtain a CE mark from a notified body in an EU member state, otherwise they won’t be able to sell in Europe. The government has said that a new ‘UK mark’ to replace or run alongside the CE mark could be developed in future. Whether that would be recognised in Europe, or anywhere else except the UK, would need to be negotiated. 

We don’t know what the new systems will be post-Brexit so we, as a sector, need to keep people briefed.

Dr Parth Shah, Optometrist Director, independent practice: The impact of Brexit on a day-to-day basis is unlikely to be significant within the optical industry over the short to medium term. Depending on the deal achieved, many of us will initially notice the cost of optical goods rising because of a combination of import tariffs and/or currency depreciation. This will potentially lead to a rise in the retail price of goods and an inflationary optical market. Long-term, things may stabilise as the pound steadies and trade abroad returns to a ‘new normal’.

Workforce issues may arise in terms of optical practice support staff, but the supply of professionals is unlikely to diminish. Recruitment and retention of practice staff – particularly in areas where high densities of EU nationals reside – may become more difficult, although I do not believe that the optical industry is as exposed as, for example, hospitality and catering.

Notwithstanding the challenges, any change brings about many opportunities for those able to see the wood for the trees. Brexit will be a seismic shift, yes, but a shift is a movement that will enable some to prosper. Brexit may be a time where we move from an almost service-based economy to increasing our manufacturing output. In the optical industry, this will absolutely be an advantage to those seeking to combine our creative industries, technology and potentially a return to manufacturing our own goods. The future is certainly not all doom and gloom.

 

Andy Yorke, Chair, Federation of Manufacturing Opticians: The majority of UK distributors of devices import goods from Europe, the US and the Far East. Our costs have increased over the past two to three years as sterling has weakened against international currencies, in particular the euro. It could get worse post-Brexit, although I hope the pound remains steady as we move through this period of uncertainty. The cost pressures that we are feeling are a real burden as in many instances we are unable to pass these on, especially to our NHS customers. And we also face a further hurdle of import tariffs if there is a no-deal Brexit.

For companies that export it could be an opportunity, although raw materials may increase in price, which could have the impact of cancelling out the gains. 

Without a Brexit deal, there could be disruption to our supply chain, but I am aware that a number of our members are taking measures to make sure they can fulfil their obligations. My own company, Topcon, will start to increase levels of stock as we move closer to Brexit, especially if the prospect of no deal increases in likelihood. 

Aaron Grell, Registration International Coordinator at the General Optical Council: We are committed to continuing to assist all eligible non-UK applicants to have a pathway to registration. It is hard to predict exactly how this will work in practice until it becomes clear what deal there will be between the UK and the EU, although we are working closely with the Department of Health and other regulators on the issue. We have received 226 European Economic Area (EEA) applications since the Brexit vote in June 2016.

Applicants from within the EEA or Switzerland can currently apply to have their qualification recognised under EU directive 2005/36/EU on the recognition of professional qualifications. If the directive no longer applies after Brexit, EEA applicants will have to apply through our non-EEA process instead. This has some extra requirements, such as English language testing and the need to complete the College’s Scheme for Registration. The full requirements are set out at optical.org/en/Registration/international-applicants/index.cfm.


Dan Ehrlich, former Head of Optometry at Moorfields Eye Hospital and Trustee at the Institute of Optometry: Hospitals are already experiencing difficulties meeting demand for hospital eye services and have recruited ophthalmic nurses from European countries such as Italy and Spain. 

In teaching hospitals, in particular, quite a number of ophthalmology fellows are also from Europe. While many hospitals will have put in place support for EU staff already working here, there is uncertainty as to whether they will want to stay. 

There are few optometrists from Europe working in the UK, so supply should be largely unaffected. However, optometrists are likely to have to pick up extra workload in hospitals because of increased pressure on ophthalmology. Optometrists working in a  range of ‘extended roles’ could intensify as a result and it could also lead to changes in patient pathways, creating extra workload for community optometrists.

The EU is currently a major funder of research, and I know it’s already becoming difficult to apply for EU grants from a UK institution. There could also be a loss of talent from the research sector as EU nationals decide to leave the UK or are put off applying for jobs here. High standards of clinical evidence-based care are derived from working alongside academics from research and education. If research activity is weakened, we could lose one of the key drivers for developing our clinical expertise, which is a real concern. 

On a more positive note, if Brexit results in a financial benefit for the NHS – as was promised – that would be very welcome. It may also enable us to recruit more staff from non-EU countries. 

Ultimately, the NHS is used to going through reorganisation and change, and staff always try to make it work for the patients.
 
 

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