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Government dragging heels as 1000s of overseas dentists left unable to practise during access crisis

The British Dental Association has called on Ministers and the dental regulator to deliver rapid change to laws governing tests for overseas dentists, after COVID restrictions have left thousands of applicants waiting to pass registration exams to practise in the UK.

The union has warned that a three-month consultation on necessary legal changes – launching today – will mean little chance of parliamentary time until the autumn at the earliest – leaving an incredibly narrow window until mutual recognition of qualifications for EU dentists ends in December.

Due to the pandemic, the Overseas Registration Exam (ORE) has not taken place since January 2020. In response to a parliamentary question Minister Maria Caulfield MP revealed that there are over 2,000 applicants currently waiting for an opportunity to sit these exams. Under existing arrangements most of these dentists will end up waiting years before being allowed a chance to practise in the UK, and due to outdated regulations many won’t be allowed to work in the NHS.
The General Dental Council (GDC) recently told 132 candidates who had already passed the first part of their ORE that they cannot currently be allocated a place to sit Part 2 as – due to no exams taking place for two years – they have exceeded the permitted waiting time of five years from the first attempt at Part 1.

In messages to these candidates on 3 December 2021 the GDC said there was nothing it could do given the legislation it works to. The consultation that has now been published addresses the imminent issues for these candidates – but the timescales involved mean further delays to meaningful change. The consultation had been expected since the middle of 2021 and it is not clear why it has taken so long to get off the ground. The BDA will consider all proposals and provide relevant feedback, but stressed government must act quickly on feedback.

The BDA has been overwhelmed by messages from candidates citing desperation, suicidal thoughts and immense anger at the current situation. It has heard from dentists that have postponed having children because of the delays, and have been forced to work in roles such as minicab drivers, security guards, busboys and supermarket shelf stackers to make ends meet.

The union had pressed both the GDC and Health Secretary Sajid Javid to work at pace to resolve the situation and bring down the backlog awaiting examinations, and improve the processes which allow overseas dentists to work in the NHS.

Patients in England face profound access problems, with over 38 million NHS appointments lost since the first lockdown, and with nearly 1,000 dentists leaving NHS services in the last year.

BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“Every new colleague unable to sit this exam translates into thousands of patients that will be denied access to needed care.

“We warned of the risks since the outset of the pandemic yet Ministers and our regulator failed to grasp the nettle. Inaction has left highly skilled clinicians waiting tables and stacking shelves while millions struggle to get an NHS appointment.

“For the sake of our patients government must ensure that these dentists are supported, and those still waiting to sit the exams can look forward to a fairer system.”