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Can dentistry learn to live with COVID?

The new Health Secretary is urging a rapid return to normality, how will dentistry fit on Sajid Javid's new agenda?

Shawn Charlwood
Shawn Charlwood Chair, British Dental Association's General Dental Practice Committee

The PM says Britain will have to "learn to live with Covid". And now we have a new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, more hawkish on easing wider restrictions than his predecessor, stressing both the "health benefits" of ending lockdown, and the need to manage the virus as we do with seasonal flu.

However, dentistry needs help if we're going to learn to live with this virus. From patient access to workforce sustainability, we need a clear plan from government and real support:

'Freedom Day' for dentistry?

Monday 19 July won't have much impact on dentists or the millions struggling to access our services. The bonfire of lockdown restrictions in England will not be confirmed until 12 July, but it does not look like it will have any direct knock-on effects on the restrictions we work under.

Indeed, the Secretary of State has already told parliament that it would make sense for guidelines like the 2 metre rule to continue in "some specific settings", including medical environments. Many colleagues will want to keep with current approaches, as we await updated guidance.

Some patients may expect packed waiting rooms and an end to mask wearing, and the gulf between national guidance and current Standard Operating Procedures will need careful managing.

The bigger issue is how long this disconnect continues, because from FFP3 masks to fallow time, the UK has chosen a route few other nations have taken.

A clear roadmap is needed

Back in March 2020, we supported a precautionary approach in the face of a novel virus. In July 2021, we need to balance the risks from COVID with clear threats to the long-term sustainability of the service and patient access.

Many members have already told us they're reconsidering their futures working under these conditions.

We have stressed the need for the safest and fastest route back to something resembling normality, and already we've got commitments from all 4 UK CDOs on a review to IPC guidance.

Yes, there is a marked change in tone from government, but we can't take anything for granted.

How to build back better and fairer

Even if SOPs change, dentistry will need support.

That starts with ventilation. Off the back of our call dentists in Wales, Northern Ireland, and now Scotland are benefiting from capital funding. Many colleagues in England either simply have no options or have taken on new debts to invest. They all deserve the same support.

Spending here pays for itself, restoring lost charge revenues while delivering an immediate boost to patient numbers. It is an essential first step to future-proof practices.

And of course, there's the NHS contract, where a clean break from UDAs is urgently required. The Welsh Government has confirmed there will be no return to targets, and the new Health Secretary needs to do the same.

A newly published Health and Care Bill may offer a way forward on water fluoridation, while historic pledges on supervised brushing have yet to be taken forward. With oral health inequalities set to widen, his Department needs to double down on prevention.

These are laudable aims - which we've long championed - but they must be pursued in tandem with immediate action to get this service back on track.

Dentistry is filling up MPs' postbags

Junior minister Health Minister Jo Churchill told her parliamentary colleagues last month that dentistry is continuing to loom large in messages MPs are receiving from constituents. And it's easy to see why.

Over 30 million NHS appointments have been lost since lockdown, and strict COVID measures mean millions more still have little chance of securing care.

We know Mr Javid faces a daunting to-do-list, but we're clear dentistry must form part of that agenda.

Whether this service can live with COVID will hinge on the decisions Mr Javid and his team make in the months ahead.