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Dentists: We can’t ‘learn to live with COVID’ without support

The British Dental Association has issued an open letter to new Health Secretary Sajid Javid following the Prime Minister’s comments that the country has to ‘learn to live with COVID’, stressing that urgent support and policy change are now required if services are to return to anything resembling normal.

Dentist leaders have underlined the urgency of a need for a roadmap to ease tight restrictions on dental services, designed at the start of the first wave, that have led to over 30 million NHS appointments being lost in England alone since March 2020. Many of the requirements effectively limit patient numbers, including ‘fallow time’ gaps between treatments and use of high-level PPE.

They have stressed that dentists in England require the same capital funding for ventilation systems offered by every other UK nation to help boost patient numbers, alongside root and branch reform of the failed NHS system dental services are based on. Last week the Welsh Government confirmed it would not return to the target-based contract that both nations have operated since 2006, which has fuelled ongoing access and workforce problems.

The BDA has stressed it requires clear movement on commitments for both water fluoridation and supervised brushing, and an end to inflation busting increases in patient charges that discourage attendance among those on modest incomes. Oral health inequality is anticipated to widen, given ongoing disruption to services, lockdown diets and the suspension of public health programmes.

It has also sought assurances that the £1 billion committed to ease backlogs in elective surgery will be shared equitably with those in hospital and community services dealing with already year long waiting times for dental treatments under a general anaesthetic on child and vulnerable adult patients.

According to recent surveys pandemic restrictions are taking a terrible toll on the dental workforce. Nearly half (47%) of dentists indicate they are now likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months should current COVID guidance remain in place. The same proportion state they are likely to reduce their NHS commitment. Working in high level PPE mandated under current infection control procedures is having a devastating impact on dentists’ morale, with nearly 9 in 10 (88%) indicating it is having a high impact on their morale.

BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“The PM says we have to learn to live with COVID, but that message will be lost on millions still unable to access dental care.

“To make any progress we need a clear roadmap to ease restrictions. NHS dentistry was in crisis before COVID struck, and we now face unprecedented backlogs, widening oral health inequality and workforce looking for the exit.

“Urgent action is required to guarantee the future of this service. It is a logical extension of any ‘levelling up’ agenda, and Ministers must take this opportunity to build back better and fairer.”