It is a scandal that the NHS deems eyesight operations ‘non-essential’ – everyone deserves the chance to see the world

Janet Street-Porter
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It is a scandal that the NHS deems eyesight operations ‘non-essential’ – everyone deserves the chance to see the world

Eyesight is extremely precious, something I appreciate even more as I’ve got older. Being able to see clearly allows us to be independent. We can enjoy television and read a newspaper, walk to the shops, meet friends and drive a car. Sight is the key to positive ageing. Given that loneliness and isolation (which can have a negative impact on health) are rising, you’d think that health professionals would do everything in their power to keep the elderly mobile and positive.

As a child, I wore thick NHS glasses, suffering from short sight and astigmatism. A few years ago I ditched my trademark whacky spectacles following laser surgery. Now I only wear glasses for reading. As you age, though, eyes deteriorate – I’ve had a glaucoma operation on one eye and my vision is monitored regularly. This wasn’t offered on the NHS, but I can’t afford to lose my sight.

Decent vision means less chance of falling and breaking bones, and yet new research reveals a heartbreaking state of affairs – the NHS is rationing routine operations that can restore sight, by categorising the procedure as “non-essential”. As a result of this misguided policy, hundreds of thousands of people are currently marooned at home with cataracts, their lives diminished by NHS pen-pushers callously deciding their condition isn’t life-threatening. Cataracts might not be “life-threatening” but they are most definitely “life-diminishing”.

This condition, which affects around 677,000 people in the UK and half of the people aged over 80, causes the eyes to go cloudy, gradually impairing vision. Untreated, they continue to grow and sufferers are reduced to seeing the world through a grey haze. A simple operation costing £1,000, takes half an hour and replaces the lens in the eye with an artificial substitute. You can go home the same day. So why are half the clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in England acting like god and denying people who have paid their taxes and national insurance contributions this essential procedure?

New research compiled by the Medical Technology Group has discovered that over half of the CCGs in England have re-designated cataract operations as “non-essential”, and are only offering them to people whose eyesight has deteriorated to an extreme level. This “non-essential” category routinely applies to procedures such as cosmetic surgery and alternative therapies – as if the NHS has decided that eyesight is a designer health option, like homeopathy or tattoo removal.

I don’t know how these NHS decision makers sleep at night, because denying someone the basic gift of sight is a crime in my book. The other weekend, I visited my elderly Auntie Violet in a care home in Llandudno. In her late eighties, she also suffers from Parkinson’s and a degenerating spine. One of Vi’s few pleasures was reading and watching television. Now she sits, numbed and depressed, in a grey haze, head bowed. Her quality of life, in spite of caring assistants, is absolutely reduced. Vi can’t see because she has untreated cataracts in both eyes and has been waiting for NHS Wales to offer her cataract surgery for over six months since she was diagnosed by the local optician.

Since writing to her GP there has been endless prevarication. It’s obvious that, in spite of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence stating that cataract operations have “a high success rate ... transform lives and help people function normally and not become isolated” and should never be rationed, that this is exactly what 104 out of 195 hospital trusts in England are doing. At the same time, all over the UK, hospital wards are full of pensioners who have fallen because they can’t see properly. This signifies a total lack of joined up thinking. Perhaps it is NHS bosses who are blind?

The Medical Technology Group has set up a new website, Rationwatch, to highlight which parts of the country are carrying out this practice, which in my view is highly unethical. A postcode lottery means that if you are lucky enough to live in Barking and Dagenham, for example, there are no restrictions to having surgery for cataracts, hip and knee replacements. But if you are unlucky enough to reside in nearby Basildon and Brentwood, then you will be put on a waiting list as the procedures have been deemed “non-essential”. This is a ludicrous state of affairs.

In some areas, CCGs only operate on one eye, leaving impaired vision in the other. It’s as if the elderly and neediest in our society are being treated as second class citizens and asked to function with 50 per cent of their sight.

This month, the NHS has once again failed to meet targets for waiting times. The prime minister wants key targets removed entirely. The number of patients waiting for “non-emergency” surgery like cataracts soared by 31 per cent in February, compared with the same month last year. Over 228,000 people, like my Aunty Vi, have been waiting for over six months – half blind and suffering in silence.

Trapped? I’d rather strike a Pose

Fed up with a diet of Scandi-noir and serial killers? At the end of BBC4’s Trapped, I felt I’d wasted hours trying to follow internecine warfare between a bunch of loosely related men with greasy hair and badly knitted sweaters in a remote part of Iceland.

The weather was dismal, the plot ludicrous. Plus, the only sympathetic policeman got killed off. Now, the BBC is heavily promoting Line of Duty – another misery-fest peopled by unsmiling cops and that female detective with weird staring eyes. Luckily, there’s joy to be had elsewhere. After episode one of Pose (BBC2) premiered this week, I was dancing around the telly smiling. Set in New York, in the late 1980s, it follows the gay and trans world of the dance floor, where rivalries are fought out and scores settled with wonderful costumes and outrageous voguing.

The story of these characters takes place against the background of Aids, with another side of New York – successful, white and coke-snorting exemplified by the flashy Trump Tower. Pose focuses on the exclusion of black and Latino LGBT+ people from the mainstream and tells their stories through an exceptional cast. It shows how they fought back, forming “houses” – teams of dancers who lived together – to compete at “balls” where they could act out their fantasies. The script is high camp, the costumes divine and the soundtrack is hot. Five stars.