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​Dentists: Government sitting on side-lines as child oral health gap widens

The British Dental Association has warned oral health inequality among the young is set to widen, as new research commissioned by the Liberal Democrats indicates 6.5 million children in England have not been seen by an NHS dentist for at least a year.

The BDA warn the lack of access will disproportionately impact on lower income, higher needs families, widening the UK’s oral health gap. Data obtained by the professional body under Freedom of Information indicates over 15 million appointments for children have been lost since lockdown, well over a year’s worth of dentistry in normal times.

In March the first oral health survey of 5-year-olds published since lockdown showed once again no improvements in decay levels and a widening gap between rich and poor. 23.7% of 5-year-old children in England had experience of obvious dentinal decay. This was a marginal increase on the previous survey of 5-year-olds in 2019, where figures stood at 23.4%.

The report concluded that while absolute inequalities in tooth decay prevalence in 5-year-olds reduced from 2008 to 2015, there have been no further reductions in inequalities since then.

In the 2019 survey the prevalence of dental decay was higher in children from more deprived areas (34.3%) than in children from less deprived areas (13.7%) – an oral health gap of 20.6 percentage points. In 2022 data that gap has widened. In 2022 the prevalence of dental decay in more deprived areas was 35.1% compared to 13.5% in the more affluent – an oral health gap of over 21.6 percentage points.

Last week the UK government pledged to develop a ‘recovery plan’ just minutes ahead of the Department of Health and NHS England giving evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee inquiry into the crisis in NHS dentistry. The BDA described the last-minute announcement as ‘reeking of desperation.’ Dentist leaders have called on the Committee to set out a clear roadmap to reform for government, following evasive answers and poorly defined commitments to rescue the struggling service.

The BDA has slammed failure by government to take forward longstanding pledges to consult on expansion of supervised brushing programmes in schools and nurseries, and to act on pledges to expand water fluoridation. Both policies pay for themselves owing to reduction in treatment need among children.

BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“Access to dentistry has fallen off a cliff. We’re losing the ability to nip problems in the bud, and the results are frankly devastating.

“A preventable disease remains the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children, and things are set to go from bad to worse.

“Kids in our most deprived communities will be hit the hardest while government sits on the side-lines.”