5 January 2021

Eye care provision under new national restrictions

Yesterday, the Prime Minister and First Minister for Scotland announced new national restrictions to help tackle the rising number of coronavirus infections and ease pressure on NHS and related health

The key message is to stay at home, however travel for medical appointments is permitted. The new measures came into force at 00:01 on Tuesday 5 January 2021 for both nations. Now all four UK nations are in similar lockdowns.

Optometrists should follow College’s amber phase guidance

Optometrists should continue to provide needs- and symptoms-led primary eye care under the new restrictions, in line with all other primary health services. Routine appointments should only be provided if capacity permits, and if it is in the patients’ best interests. Detailed information on how to achieve this is set out in the College’s amber phase guidance. While we recognise that optometric practice during a lockdown is challenging, access to an optometrist is critical in ensuring the preservation of vision and prevention of sight loss. This will also help to relieve pressure on NHS hospital services. 

We are clear that following amber phase guidance during a lockdown does not mean business as usual. Optometry practices should continue to follow existing IPC (infection prevention and control) and social distancing guidance, and prioritise emergency/urgent and essential care on a needs- and symptoms-led basis. This also recognises that practices are at a very different level of preparedness than in March, with IPC procedures in place, changes to clinical practice now embedded and lateral flow tests and PPE readily available.

Routine appointments should only be provided if capacity permits, and if it is in the patients’ best interests. 

Prioritising provision 

You should offer phone and video review to patients in the first instance to determine COVID-19 status and level of eye care needed. This should be noted on the patient’s file, and you can use the College’s phone triage form to record remote consultations. Patients should be advised to contact the practice if COVID-19 symptoms develop before, or after, an appointment. 

Asymptomatic patients should be advised of the importance of reduced contact and offered the choice of postponing their routine examination until restrictions are eased, particularly if they are at high risk of being affected by COVID-19.

When providing face-to-face care, you should continue to follow the College’s guidance on infection prevention and control, social distancing and wearing of appropriate PPE.

Why are we not in the red phase? 

The red phase will be initiated if and when the national governments and respective health systems suspend routine primary health care services. We are now at a very different level of preparedness than the first lockdowns in March, with IPC procedures in place, changes to clinical practice now embedded and lateral flow tests and PPE readily available.

Vaccination for frontline healthcare workers 

As frontline healthcare staff, optometrists and their colleagues are deemed critical workers and the College has worked with NHS England and each of the devolved nations’ governments to ensure they are recognised as a priority group along with other frontline health workers. This underscores the invaluable role optometrists have in fulfilling an essential public health function by providing ongoing eye care. While vaccinations are being rolled out to priority groups, all NHS primary care contractors, including optical practices, have access to regular lateral flow testing to check if asymptomatic staff have contracted the virus and to prevent further transmission by self-isolating according to government guidance. 

The Scheme for Registration

Work-based assessments
Under the government’s guidelines, face-to-face assessment in allied health subjects, including Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) assessments, can still go ahead during the lockdown. Travel is permitted for work and educational purposes, so assessors are still able to visit practices to assess trainees. Please be assured that we will be working within the government regulations and the College’s COVID-19 guidance to ensure the safety of trainees, supervisors, assessors and patients.

The January OSCE 
Government advice suggests that the OSCE starting on 25 January can go ahead. Travel is permitted for work and educational purposes, so examiners and trainees can travel to and from the exam. Our key priority is ensuring the safety of candidates, examiners and others involved in delivering the examination and working in the venue. We will be reviewing arrangements and we will keep those affected updated and informed.  

Keeping you informed

We are committed to supporting our members throughout the pandemic, and ensuring your and the public’s safety. We will continue to ensure that you have timely, reliable and effective information and guidance you need to be able to practise safely and effectively. Our website provides the latest COVID-19 updates, guidance and resources, and we will continue to send emails to alert you and your colleagues of significant changes and developments.  

This article was correct at time of publication. 

Related further reading

For the very last issue of Optometry in Practice, Professor Jonathan Jackson MCOptom reflects on the past two decades of the journal and its contribution to our learning.

This paper describes how viruses infect, reproduce and damage cells. Knowing this process is critical for understanding how to treat ocular viral infections.