The British Dental Association has criticised the NHS England approach to the latest hike in NHS activity targets, imposed with minutes to spare, and ahead of any meaningful relaxation of COVID restrictions.
From Friday 1 October practices will be obliged to meet 65% of their pre-COVID activity levels or face financial penalties. Around a third of practices were incapable of achieving these levels in recent months. The ‘cliff edge’ – the level below which practices face returning a substantial proportion of their NHS funding – will also rise to 52%, leaving hundreds of already struggling practices at risk.
1 in 6 practices were delivering below this level in August. The target will remain in place until 1 January 2022.
Practices are still facing major limits on capacity owing to standard operating procedures designed during the first wave of the pandemic. In response to BDA calls to commission a roadmap to ease COVID restrictions, all four UK Chief Dental Officers issued a rare joint statement in June, committing to a review. Approaches to ease restrictions are set to be consulted on, but there is no clarity when any changes will take effect, or indeed what levels of additional capacity this may unlock. Increases in thresholds at this point therefore remain premature.
The BDA has pressed for restraint on targets, underlining that any significant increase will further undermine the long-term sustainability of services in England. It has said clear ambition is also required from government to honour pledges to reform the widely discredited NHS contract. In recent BDA surveys nearly half (47%) of dentists indicated they were likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months should current COVID restrictions remain in place. The same proportion stated they were likely to reduce their NHS commitment.
Shawn Charlwood, Chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee said:
“The timing of this new target is simply unacceptable.
“Dentists are at their wits end, and many are already reconsidering their futures. We need a roadmap to meaningfully ease COVID restrictions, not further hikes when plans are still on the drawing board.
“This service was in crisis long before COVID struck. We have pressed for restraint on targets, but we need to see real ambition on reform if this service is going to have a future.”