14 December 2021

Move to Alert Level 4 announced across the UK

The College issues advice following the Prime Minister's announced that the UK would return to COVID Alert Level 4.

Over the weekend, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would return to  COVID-19 Alert Level 4 – a high or rising transmission level. Optometrists and optometry practices should continue to follow the College’s amber guidance. The technical reports by UKHSA and the Scottish Government comprehensively set out the challenges that the Omicron variant poses; the increased transmissibility means it is vital to maintain high standards of infection prevention and control (IPC) over the coming months and to check our guidance for updates regularly. Each nation’s government has set out the importance of booster vaccinations, and we have listed resources to encourage vaccine uptake amongst all practice staff.

Maintaining high standards of infection control 

Infection prevention and control (IPC) complacency poses a significant transmission risk. The current circumstances reinforces the need to continue to maintain the high standards of IPC procedures that practices have adopted throughout the pandemic to keep them safe. We urge employers to continue to support clinicians and their teams to ensure social distancing is maintained and sufficient time is provided for IPC.

Practices should continue to:

  • maintain social distancing
  • ensure all staff wear a face mask (FRFM) and follow the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • ensure scrupulous hand washing
  • ensure good surface disinfection after every patient episode
  • encourage all staff to regularly use lateral flow device (LFD) tests and report the results
  • maintaining patient screening for COVID-19 and respiratory symptoms
  • ensure adequate ventilation.

It is vital we continue to ensure practices remain safe spaces and this is only possible by continued application of our recommended IPC measures. The best way to prepare for this winter is to avoid any complacency and champion best practice to ensure a continued safe working environment and place for patients to access their eye care.

Keeping your staff room and back-office areas safe

With the increasing prevalence of COVID-19 and increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant across the UK, workplace transmission poses a risk to every team, both to an individual's health, and their ability to meet their patients’ needs. 

Actions to reduce the risk of staff-to-staff transmission include: 

  • reducing the number of people in the staff area and staggering breaks
  • wearing face masks in staff areas, unless seated and eating and drinking
  • spacing out chairs and tables in the staff area to ensure social distancing can be observed
  • having antimicrobial wipes available for frequently touched objects (such as the kettle and cupboard handles), and surfaces
  • making sure you have additional ventilation, such as keeping windows open in staff areas
  • taking time to acknowledge and positively reinforce good practice, while reminding colleagues if they are not following the workplace measures to keep the workplace safe.

Workplace measures to keep the staff areas safe are essential, not only because they help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 amongst the team and their families, but also because they ensure that your practice can stay open and continue to offer eye care to your local community.

What to do if a patient tests positive for COVID-19 having visited your practice

Patients who attend optical practices and subsequently test positive for COVID-19 are not generally considered contacts for NHS Test and Trace/Test and Protect purposes when the practice has been following IPC procedures and practitioners have been wearing PPE properly when they were in contact with the patient. Regional Test and Trace/Test and Protect  teams have confirmed this continues to be the case with the Omicron variant. 

If contacted, it is essential that you explain to the Test and Trace/Test and Protect call handler that the contact was within a healthcare setting and to describe the PPE you were using and the IPC procedures you were following.

If you believe the call handler has incorrectly assessed the risk of the interaction, you should escalate the decision by requesting a second opinion from the regional team. 

Read more on our FAQ page.

Healthcare worker household contacts 

Across the UK, new self-isolation rules with respect to the Omicron variant have been updated. However, the self-isolation exemptions for healthcare workers, including optometrists and practice teams remain the same. 

  • In Scotland, if you live with a person with COVID-19, you may continue to work provided you are fully vaccinated, have no symptoms, have a negative PCR test and follow the conditions set out by Scottish Government. You must now also have received the COVID-19 booster jab in order for this to apply.
  • In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, if you live with a person with COVID-19, you can return to work provided you are fully vaccinated, have no symptoms, your PCR test is negative and all other contingency measures have been explored based on a risk assessment conducted by an appropriate senior manager within the optical practice.  

We expect practice managers to only use this option when absolutely necessary in order to deliver essential eye care. While these exemptions from self-isolation apply irrespective of the COVID-19 variant, the most recent evidence suggests transmission with the Omicron variant is significantly higher than the Delta variant, so there is a significantly higher risk of household transmission, despite vaccination status*. 

This is under constant review in all nations. Please see our FAQs page for the current guidance.

References

This article was correct at time of publication. 

Related further reading

Here we summarise three research papers from a recent issue of Optometry in Practice.

This article provides practical tips for assessing and managing eye health in people with varying degrees of hearing loss.

This article describes an audit to evaluate how the COVID-19 pandemic affected hospital contact lens services.