One of our Young Volunteers, George, shares his experience of a visit to the opticians, during the pandemic

When I had to go to the opticians for a routine test, I was interested to know how Covid-19 would affect the experience, and what measures would then be put in place to mitigate the risks that the virus poses.

I walked into the opticians with a face mask, which was insisted upon even when somebody asked to remove theirs. On the reception desk was a large cardboard hand sanitation station, although with no foot pedal as some others do, which I feel defeats the object of them. The receptionist was protected by a large sheet of plastic. However, this seemed to be the only indication that there was indeed a global pandemic. Sitting down on a fabric seat which I noticed could not be cleaned, I was able to observe how other customers were dealt with in relation to the virus.

One elderly man walked in to have his glasses fitted. He was wearing a mask but was then actively encouraged to remove it to stop his glasses from ‘steaming up’. The person fitting his glasses was making no effort to avoid unnecessary physical contact, but how possible is this with such a close job as fitting glasses?

While waiting, I looked behind me to discover the only official recognition of the virus: an NHS poster put up behind the seats, making it possible to see only if you looked behind you. Even then, the writing was so small that it could not be easily seen from where I was sitting. Amid the tiny paragraphs I could just make out a heading that said ‘coronavirus’. However, I could not distinguish anything else. Perhaps it is good that I was there for an eye test after all!

The actual eye test was interesting. The lady who was doing it did wear a mask, which was to be expected. As part of a ‘new system’, I was sat on a stool on the opposite side of a small room while she filled out some preliminary forms. However, I was quickly moved to the big chair on the other side of the room which I assumed everybody sat on. Any hopes of social distancing were dashed there and then, although I cannot say that I expected to have an eye test two metres apart! I was then asked to read out some (very small) letters with different lenses slid on to a pair of glasses which, again, I was certain had been worn by everybody previously. I never saw them cleaned, although it is possible that it is common practise to clean them normally, but as I went in with my family it was not necessary. If that is so, I think it is an unprofessional assumption to make.

After this, the lady began peering into my eyes with a torch. She got very close during this, and I was not at all reassured by her persistent sniffing from behind her mask. Given that masks are there to stop transmission from this exact situation, I am sure that I would have caught nothing, although I never expected to have to rely on masks so heavily. Then we had to take a picture of my eye using a big piece of equipment which I had to place my head on. There were plates for me to rest my forehead and chin on. I had not seen these cleaned either.

Following this, we left the small side-room. I was told that there had been no deterioration in my eyesight (yippee). However, during the time in which I left and the next person was invited in, I did not see anything cleaned; indeed, had she wanted to clean everything I had touched, it would not be something that could be done in a few seconds. If the same procedure was followed with the next person as it had with me, I am certain that nothing was cleaned, leaving a very suitable surface for the virus to spread. As I have mentioned, it is entirely possible that, since we came in as a family, it was decided that cleaning would not be necessary.

While waiting for the other members of my family to be tested, a member of the opticians approached us to ask if we did not mind her opening the door to let in a breeze (although it turned out to be more like a gale). She said that they were not allowed the air-conditioning on. This is because the government deems it unsafe as it circulates the airborne virus around the room. So does an open door. However, it was hot in there, and we were all wearing masks.

To summarise my trip, I would say that a fair amount of attention was paid to ensuring the safety of customers, including the legal obligations (such as wearing masks), which were strictly observed. However, most precautions like hand sanitisers seemed more of an afterthought than anything else.

I would recommend that any vulnerable person should avoid this experience. That said, there was nothing that could clearly be done to further prevent the risks involved. Inevitably, there will be some dangers  in doing something like this. If one person did have the virus, it would have spread very quickly—not because of faults of the opticians, but because of the very nature of the activity.