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​Dentists: Bupa closures just the tip of the iceberg for service built on sand

The British Dental Association has warned the mass closures planned by dental giant Bupa, estimated to leave half a million patients without access to care, is not the end for the crisis sweeping the service.

Constituents of Big Beasts from Starmer to Raab to face cuts.

Dentist leaders say these closures require both government and opposition to set out concrete plans to reform and properly fund NHS dentistry. Among the hundreds of thousands set to be hit, include the constituents of big beasts from government and opposition, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab and Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Others facing cuts include residents in seats of the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and practices are under review in the seats of Health Minister and former Minister for Dentistry Maria Caulfield, and Duncan Baker, current PPS at the Department of Health.

Recent analysis undertaken by the BDA of government data indicates unmet need for dentistry in 2022 stood at over 11 million people, or almost one in four of England's adult population. The professional body warned the Health and Social Care Committee last week that government was just "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the service slowly slips into the sea".

The government has been accused of offering little more than tweaks to the system NHS dentists work to. While marginal changes to the discredited NHS contract fuelling this crisis were taken forward in November, there are serious concerns over their limited ambitions on rebuilding the service. Recruitment and retention problems are endemic, and soaring prices mean some providers now face the risk of delivering some NHS treatments at a loss.

The BDA stress this crisis runs far deeper than these closures. In recent surveys over half of dentists in England (50.3%) report having reduced their NHS commitment since the start of the pandemic – by 27% on average. This movement is not tracked in official workforce data, which counts heads not commitment, and where dentists doing one NHS check-up a year carry the same weight as an NHS full timer. The proportion of dentists now reporting their intention to reduce – or further reduce – the amount of NHS work they undertake this year stands at 74%.

The Health Service Journal recently reported that up to £400m of NHS dentistry's already inadequate budget is set to be lost from the frontline, as dentists are penalised for failing to hit contractual targets. This money is not ringfenced and, in the face of this crisis, will likely be redistributed to balance other budgets elsewhere in the NHS.

News comes in a week where government announced an 8.5% increase in patient charges. The BDA say the hike is inexcusable during a cost of living crisis and will hit millions on modest incomes. It will also not put a penny into a budget that has remained largely static for a decade and will simply mean patients will pay a greater share of total spend, while Ministers pay less.

Shawn Charlwood, Chair of the British Dental Association's General Dental Practice Committee said:

"These mass closures are just the tip of the iceberg.

"NHS dentistry is a service built on sand. Years of failed contracts and underfunding have taken their toll and more will inevitably follow.

"This crisis is hitting millions, including the constituents of Big Beasts from both Government and Opposition. Both sides need to wake up and set out a plan to save this service."