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NHS dentistry: No return to ‘business as usual’ for struggling service

The British Dental Association has stressed latest official figures show there is no prospect of NHS dentistry bouncing back to pre-COVID levels without radical and urgent change.

NHS Dental Statistics 2022/23, published today, show the service is still struggling to return to pre-pandemic norms, with the 32.5 million courses of NHS treatment delivered sitting at just 82% of the 39.7 million provided in 2018/19. The professional body warns limited gains in the last year will not take the edge of an ever-growing backlog, as patients present with higher levels of need, the result of ongoing access problems.

Just 18.1 million adults in England were seen for NHS dental treatment in the 24 months up to June 2023, 17.5% lower than the 22 million seen in the 24 months up to June 2019. Just 6.4 million children were seen in the 12 months to June 2023, down 9% on figures for 2019.

Minor tweaks to the discredited NHS contract fuelling the crisis in NHS dentistry were rolled out during this financial year. The BDA say that the fact the number of dentists delivering NHS care has continued to fall - down 121 on last year - reflects to the wholesale inadequacy of these changes. 24,151 dentists are recorded as performing NHS work in 2022/23, over 500 down on numbers before lockdown.

The recent Health and Social Care Committee inquiry described the state of the service as ‘totally unacceptable in the 21st century’, setting out fundamental changes centred on reform of the dysfunctional contract. The BDA has urged the government to sign up to this reform plan, which it has characterised as an ‘instruction manual’ to save NHS dentistry. A recovery plan for the service - pledged by government in April - has yet to be published.

Dentist leaders have long warned that without fundamental reform the exodus of dentists from the service will grow, and the service will not have a future.

This month a dental practice in Faversham, Kent, received 27,000 calls and saw patients queuing overnight to compete for just 60 NHS places.

Eddie Crouch, Chair of the British Dental Association, said:

“We’re seeing the limits on the recovery and this government’s ambition.

“Demoralised dentists are walking away from a broken system, while millions struggle to access the care they need.

“NHS dentistry can come back from the brink, but only if Ministers turn the page.”