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NHS dentistry: Treasury tokenism won’t stop crisis becoming election issue

The British Dental Association has responded to reports in today’s Daily Telegraph that the Government is planning to announce new investment for NHS dentistry in the Spring budget to stop the current crisis becoming an issue in the coming General Election.

The professional body welcomes any change in tune from the Treasury but says any increase in spending cannot be a one-off, and must go hand in hand with radical reform the Government has failed to commit to.

This week the Department of Health and Social Care report and annual accounts 2022/23 revealed that £2.899bn was spent on NHS dentistry - a level almost unchanged from when the Coalition first took power. Years of flatlining budgets have seen spend fall by a third in real terms since 2010 – a real cut of £1bn.

The BDA stress any new investment must be permanent, given the impact of austerity funding and the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis. The Government took forward a time limited injection of £50m in urgent care in early 2022 - and only £14.1m was spent by already struggling practices, many simply unable to fill vacancies.

Reports suggest money may be targeted at rural and coastal communities. The BDA say this will fly in the face of what is a national crisis. Analysis of the Government’s own data - the GP Survey - indicates unmet need for NHS Dentistry in England was over 12m in 2023, or 1 in 4 of the adult population, with no region unaffected.

The BDA understands underspends in the dental budget have reached over £400m - the result of struggling practices unable to hit the punitive targets set in their NHS contracts. These underspends are now being raided - with official blessing - by Integrated Care Boards to balance significant deficits. The size of any new commitment is unknown but would need to be at least at this level to constitute an ‘increase’ in funding.

The Nuffield Trust warned last month the service faces the gravest crisis in its 75-year history, and universal access to care may be dead without both radical reform and investment. The Government has declined to endorse the key recommendation from the Health and Social Care Committee to make a decisive break from the discredited contract fuelling the current crisis.

BDA Chair Eddie Crouch said:

“It’s welcome news that the Government is finally changing its tune, but any one-off ‘boost’ won’t undo the damage caused by a decade of savage cuts.

“Tokenism from the Treasury really won’t stop this crisis becoming an election issue.

“NHS dentistry will only survive if we see real reform and fair funding.”