First and foremost, please be assured that I recognise the importance of access to eye care, given that my sister is now virtually blind.
To ensure early diagnosis of eye disease, it is important that people are encouraged to get their eyes tested on a regular basis, with clinical advice stating that most people should get their eyes tested every two years.
Free NHS eye tests are available for all children, for those diagnosed with diabetes or glaucoma and for those aged 60 or over. This helps to encourage people at particular risk of developing eye disease to have their condition checked regularly.
I also welcome the broad range of support available for those diagnosed with visual impairments. Many hospitals have Eye Clinic Liaison Officers, or similar staff, who provide the practical support which patients need following their diagnosis, including advice on how to deal with their sight loss and maintain their independence.
Alongside funding to help tackle backlogs caused by the pandemic - including in ophthalmic services - the Government is committed to expanding surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres that will help people to receive treatment quicker. More broadly, the NHS Eye Care Recovery Transformation programme is aiming to ensure existing funding is used more effectively to improve service quality and outcomes for patients.
The NHS had ambitions to eliminate waits of 18 months or more by April 2023. Thanks to the incredible work of NHS staff, official NHS England statistics show by April 2023 the total number of patients waiting more than 18 months was 10,737; a reduction of over 91 per cent from the peak of almost 125,000 in September 2021.
The Government plans to spend more than £8 billion from 2022/23 to 2024/25 to help tackle waiting lists across all specialisms. This is supported by £5.9 billion investment in new beds, equipment and technology.
The NHS is also rolling out new and expanded surgical hubs to increase capacity and activity, focusing on providing high volume, low complexity surgery such as ophthalmology. There are currently 93 operational elective surgical hubs across England.
Children with a learning disability are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem, and over 40 per cent require glasses. Whilst free NHS sight tests are available for all children, the Government acknowledges the particular challenges faced by children and young people who attend special school settings in accessing high street sight testing services and also the benefit of these settings in receiving personalised advice on optimising the environment for learning. As such, NHS England will make available sight testing to all special schools from 2024/25.
The NHS Long Term Plan made a commitment to provide sight testing in special residential schools. To meet that commitment, NHS England commenced a proof-of-concept programme in 2021 to pilot a potential sight testing service model. This pilot was subject to an independent evaluation. As a result of that evaluation, NHSE is proposing to build upon the Long Term Plan commitment and extend provision to all children in special education day schools.
NHS England now intends to undertake a period of engagement with key stakeholders, schools, and the public over summer 2023, in order to share the learning from the proof-of-concept scheme and further develop the care model that will underpin the proposed future of the new expanded sight testing scheme. Following which NHS England will publish a revised service specification and roll-out plans.
Whilst this engagement is undertaken existing contractors will continue to operate under the current proof-of-concept arrangements until such time as NHS England complete their engagement and confirm the future commissioning arrangements.
Unfortunately, myopia management treatments are not currently funded by UK health systems. However, depending on your circumstances, you may still be able to get help with the costs of eye care, including NHS optical vouchers and complex lens vouchers.
More information can be accessed here: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/opticians/free-nhs-eye-tests-and-optical-vouchers/
You can also contact the Help with Health Costs helpline from 8am-6pm, Monday to Friday, on 0300 330 1343.
Finally, charities such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and Guide Dogs are also excellent resources and provide a wealth of support to the community. I do hope you will be pleased to learn that I am an RNIB champion, which supports blind and partially sighted constituents in our area. I will look forward to receiving the briefings and local statistics from RNIB, as well as developing a greater understanding of the challenges facing those living with sight loss in our constituency.