At the time of writing most optometry practices in England will have reopened in some form or other. As things stand it is still not possible to carry out routine NHS sight testing but, following guidelines from the GOC, this is not the case for routine private eye examinations. In the latest statement from the GOC issued on June 12 it stated, ‘NHS eye care services are suspended for all but urgent, essential or emergency care, pending further announcements by the NHS in the four UK nations.’ However, as a result of other statements issued by government around businesses exempted from closure the GOC has now concluded: ‘In our view this means that registrants are able to deliver private eye care including private sight tests/eye examinations and aftercare appointments.’ This is good news and may see some profound attitude changes as to whether practices actually continue with NHS contracts when they see the amount of uptake of private eye examinations by those currently unable to access NHS sight tests. Those businesses running incentive schemes such as Eyeplan or Practice Plan are at a sound advantage currently.

But this month’s column is not about these private plans and their benefits but more about those who will deliver the eye examinations. Or more specifically those who, in the future, will do so. At some time in the past we will all have gone through our pre-registration year in order to qualify and practise as an optometrist or a dispensing optician. At the time, it may have appeared traumatic but it was something we all knew we had to do so got on with it. That all changed in March for this year’s cohort. With everything else to worry about I wonder how many of us who are already qualified spared a thought for our pre-reg colleagues? That first year of training is tough enough without what has happened this year. They must now find themselves in a very worrying and bewildering position. Currently there is no firm guidance on how this session will be completed or even when the next session for those who graduated this year will start or how it will operate.

Many of those pre-registered people will have been furloughed by their employers. While this means they have a job to go back to, they will have lost vital weeks of their training year and when they do return they will return to an environment which is pretty much against a lot of the activities a pre-reg may expect. The length of exposure of a patient to a clinician, and the checking by a second clinician of the pre-reg’s results all make for very tricky encounters. With no clear guidance, which I blame no one for as the situation is very difficult and very fluid currently, one must feel sympathy for this cohort.

However, we are a small profession who must come together to protect and support these budding optometrists and dispensing opticians. After all they are the future of our profession. We may have got the profession to where it is today but it is they who will progress it further. They hold our, and their aspirations for our profession in their grasp. It is therefore incumbent on every optometrist and dispensing optician to rally round and support not only this year’s cohort but next year’s as well. Very many practices do not currently take on a pre-registration student. Often there is good reason for this, be it the physical size of the practice or the number of patients seen. But these are extraordinary times and as such we must think of ways to ensure these people get the training they need in good time and at a high standard. We need to think differently about how these pre-registrants can complete their allotted requirements in a timely fashion. Locally, optometrists who would not normally take on a pre-reg ought to consider if they could buddy up with another local practice who does have a pre-reg and make time for them in their practice. Of course there will be those who immediately cry, ‘no’ and will find a multitude of reasons why this should not happen but I suspect very few of those will be pre-regs themselves. Here is an opportunity for us all to join together as one to assist our colleagues. If you don’t currently have a pre-reg, consider talking to a local colleague who does and see if you can help them out. The opportunity to widen the learning base by use of different practices may prove to be the best thing that has ever happened.

At the same time I would urge the College of Optometrists and the GOC to consider novel and innovate ways to make this happen and assist this group. Who knows this may even result in many more practices taking on a pre-reg in the future.

These people are our profession’s future and they deserve and need our support. Will you help?