The NHS is to pay for 10 people to be implanted with a “bionic eye”, a pioneering technology that can restore some sight to those who have been blind for years.

Only a handful of people have undergone surgery in trials so far to equip them to use Argus II, which employs a camera mounted in a pair of glasses and a tiny computer to relay signals directly to the nerves controlling sight. The decision to fund the first 10 NHS patients to be given the bionic eye could pave the way for the life-changing technology to enter the mainstream.

Those who will get the equipment can currently see nothing more than the difference between daylight and darkness. The system allows the brain to decode flashes of light, so that they can learn to see movement.

One of three patients to have had the implant into the retina in trials at Manchester Royal Eye hospital is Keith Hayman, 68, from Lancashire, who has five grandchildren. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in his 20s. The disease causes cells in the retina gradually to stop working and eventually die. Hayman, who was originally a butcher, was registered blind in 1981, and forced to give up all work.

“Having spent half my life in darkness, I can now tell when my grandchildren run towards me and make out lights twinkling on Christmas trees,” he said. “I would be talking to a friend, who might have walked off and I couldn’t tell and kept talking to myself. This doesn’t happen anymore, because I can tell when they have gone.” They may seem like little things, he said, but “they make all the difference to me”.

The NHS will fund the first 10 patients during 2017 to have surgery at Manchester and at Moorfields Eye hospital in London. All will be carefully followed, to gather data on their progress and assess how much the bionic eye improves their daily lives. If the results are good, more patients are likely to receive the treatment in the future.

“This highly innovative NHS-funded procedure shows real promise and could change lives,” said Dr Jonathan Fielden, director of specialised commissioning at NHS England.The NHS has given the world medical innovations ranging from modern cataract surgery to new vaccines and hip replacements. Now once again the NHS is at the forefront of harnessing ground-breaking science for the benefit of patients in this country.”

Professor Paulo Stanga, who first performed the surgery at the Manchester hospital in 2009, said they were very grateful to NHS England. “I personally believe this is a landmark decision,” he said. “It will significantly benefit patients who are completely blind – not only patients with retinitis pigmentosa and their families, but hopefully other patients in the future with other conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration.”

At the moment, there is no proven benefit from gene and stem cell therapies, said Stanga, even though he believes they will one day help. So the bionic eye is the only treatment that can give back a degree of vision to those who are completely blind..

There are an estimated 16,000 people with RP in the UK with varying degrees of deterioration in their vision. About a tenth can no longer see to count the fingers on a hand. Between 160 and 320 are thought to be eligible for a bionic eye operation. The numbers with age-related macular degeneration, however, are far higher – it is the commonest cause of blindness or severe vision loss. The ‘bionic eye’ treatment, including surgery, follow-up, equipment and rehabilitation, costs £150,000.

Some patients will do better than others, said Stanga. “Patients need to learn to interpret the newly acquired visual function,” he said. “They are going to be experiencing a pattern of light and darkness. The more they use the device, the more they learn to interpret it.

“They are not going to be able to discern faces but if they can see somebody is standing in front of them and in what direction the person is moving, that is great benefit for them. One of the main complaints people have is the feeling of isolation that they suffer. Some of our patients tell us they go to the pub and no longer feel that they may be talking to themselves.”