As I write this first column of the new year uncertainty still surrounds us all because of the possibility of a further spike in cases of coronavirus. I believe it is essential to focus on the positives that lay ahead. This may be less easy at this immediate point in time but there is much that is positive that we can focus our attention on. Undoubtedly the most optimistic point must be the continued and, hopefully, accelerated roll out of the Covid-19 vaccinations. These herald a potential return to some kind of normality in the coming months. This allows us all to look at our futures and what our aspirations are for the coming year. Some of you may be looking forward to a much longed for wedding that had to be cancelled last year. Some of you may be looking forward to that long-desired hug of a family member. There are many things to look forward to.

Many of our younger colleagues, still at university, may well be looking forward to graduating and setting out on their career as an optometrist, dispensing optician or orthoptist. Maybe this year that prospect may seem a little more daunting than in previous years. This cohort of students will have faced many challenges that none of us will have had to face when we went through university. There is every chance they will feel less prepared for their future and, even now, may well be starting to feel apprehensive about what may lay ahead for them.

The good news is that the whole sector of eye care in this country is a very friendly and supportive sector. And so, with this in mind I would ask us all, as 2021 unfolds, to welcome these new members of our professions with open arms and to reassure them that their fears will dissipate once they join us.

It is going to be important to offer these graduates safe environments within which to hone their skills in the early months and years. One thing that 2020 did for many of us was to show us a new era for eye care. 2020 was a year when many of us had to learn new skills and new ways of operating. We were, in many ways, like the new graduate population in that we were faced with new ways of consulting with our patients. Our patients themselves were possibly trickier to deal with in that they were more afraid than usual and often reluctant to see us for fear of contracting coronavirus. We, however, were faced with a new set of issues around examining patients in a completely different and often remote way. Fears about missing pathology, fears about misunderstanding a patient’s needs. Fears about the consequences of making mistakes and being hauled in front of our regulator. All these fears on top of our quite understandable fears, as front-line workers, of contracting coronavirus ourselves. We all had to very quickly learn new and secure ways of delivering high level services while ‘on the job’. Many of you will have gone through a range of emotions and suffered the anxieties of not being sure if you were up to the job of delivering the new services as they arose. But the fact is that we all did.

As the year starts, we can be immensely proud of what we achieved last year, but we should never forget the feeling that most people experienced last year – that feeling of trepidation as we set out in a new direction. This is how many of our graduates will feel this year. Not only the graduates, but many of the undergraduates in their first and second years who will have missed a lot of their education.

To protect the future of high quality eye care in this country let us all make a pledge to the next generation of eye health care workers to look after them and help them in their education. Let us look towards innovative ways of working with these students to help plug any gaps they may have in their knowledge so that they may be fully prepared for the start of their careers. These people are our future, we must invest in them.

I would ask, as we set out into 2021, that we all consider innovative ways of taking these students under our wings. Maybe it is appropriate to consider creating positions within our practices for these students to work during their vacation periods. In that way they can build up the confidence they may well have lost over the past year. There are many clinical tasks these students can turn their hand to; tasks including running pre-screening services such as retinal imaging or OCT imaging, allowing them to gain the essential skills and understanding in these areas, skills that will be invaluable to them as they go forwards.

It is incumbent upon us all to look after the future. 2021 will bring its challenges but in small ways we can create a solid future for the next generation. Times are difficult but this is one challenge we should never duck.