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NHS dentistry: little urgency from government to solve access crisis

The British Dental Association has mourned the government's lack of urgency on reforming NHS dentistry, following a major debate in the House of Commons this afternoon.

New data published today shows 40 million NHS appointments - the equivalent of a whole year's worth of care in pre-COVID times - have been lost since lockdown. Ministers have declined to set a deadline to reform the widely discredited NHS dental contract - which is fuelling an exodus from the service - or guarantee adequate funding is put in place to underpin the rebuild of the service. Despite a recent pledge of £50m to provide 350,000 appointments by 1 April, the service has faced unprecedented cuts over the last decade and would require an additional £880m simply to restore levels of resources to 2010 levels.

Despite recognising dentistry as the 'Cinderella Service', Health Minister Maria Caulfield failed to set a date on breaking from the current system, despite being pressed by MPs on both sides of the House.

Nearly 1000 dentists left NHS dentistry in England last year. According to a new survey, over 40% of dentists indicate they are likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months given the current pressures on the service. Two thirds (66%) indicate they will reduce their NHS commitment, with more than a third (34%) stating they plan to go fully private in the next year, and less than half (48%) are confident their practice will continue to provide any NHS services from April 2022.

The BDA has discounted 'quick fix' solutions to import dentists from overseas. There are over 42,000 dentists currently on the General Dental Council's official register, up 5% of 2018 levels, just not enough willing to work under the current NHS system. The union has stressed the imperative to develop a service that encourages UK graduates to view the NHS as a place to build a career.

BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said:

"England has lost a year's worth of dentistry, but the government has yet to show it recognises the urgency here.

"NHS dentistry will keep haemorrhaging talent and millions will continue going without needed care until Ministers grasp the nettle.

"This service was in crisis even before COVID struck, yet officials are still unwilling to call time on a failed NHS contract or reverse a decade of savage cuts.

"Calls to import staff from overseas would be just painting over the cracks. The problem isn't the number of dentists we have, we just don't have enough willing to work under a broken system. We need real change, not more quick fixes."