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Can the new government keep its promises on dentistry?

We have a new PM with a new top team, who have stated dentistry as a priority. But what’s needed now are deeds, not words.

Shawn Charlwood and Eddie Crouch

We have campaigned to put dentistry on the map during the leadership election. Our recent work with the BBC has underlined the scale of the crisis. Now we've been working with ITV to highlight that dentistry must be on the agenda not just at the Department of Health, but in Downing Street and at the Treasury.   

Liz Truss pledged action on dentistry in her first 90 days in office. The new Health Secretary, Therese Coffey, says her priorities are "A, B, C, D - Ambulances, backlogs, care, and D – doctors and dentists".  

To deliver on these promises, here's what we need to see:   

Real reform with fair funding

Liz Truss, Therese Coffey and our new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng will ultimately determine whether NHS dentistry has a future.

Whether it's increasing access or boosting retention, worthy ambitions on reform cannot be realised without new investment. This will only come with clear leadership from the top, and action across government.   

The £50m dental 'treatment blitz' offers a lesson in how not to proceed.  

In January, at the peak of Omicron, we said this was money that simply couldn't be spent. Now we've got the numbers, and the take up is just as we expected. The 350,000 appointments pledged translated into little over 65,000, and less than a third of funds have been claimed.

What dentistry needs now is real commitment, not a short-term fix. It's all too telling that the lowest levels of uptake track the areas with the biggest recruitment challenges. Telling an overstretched workforce, already working to what proved to be impossible targets, to try and see more patients was an exercise in futility.   

The simple fact is it would take £880m a year merely to reverse a decade of cuts. Without fair funding, any contractual changes will amount to rearranging the deckchairs.   

The marginal contractual tweaks from NHS England show the limit of what can be achieved when the Treasury is unwilling to commit.

Action on the workforce   

71% of General Dental Practitioners would not recommend dentistry as a career. That's the damning headline from our latest survey.

Overstretched and underfunded, it's easy to understand why. 

The Government must avoid the temptation of easy wins.

The exodus from the workforce shows no signs of slowing. It's not just those who've left entirely, it's those who are understandably scaling down.

The new administration has no idea how many NHS dentists we have. Workforce statistics give the same weight to a GDP doing a single health service check-up a year as an NHS full timer. So how could a coherent plan be developed?   

The latest NHS dental statistics show that 24,272 dentists did some NHS work in England in 2021/22. But look at those delivering NHS care by month, and it's a very different story.

The numbers fall off a cliff. Data we've sought under Freedom of Information shows that nearly 15% of the workforce – almost 4000 dentists – are doing no more than one course of NHS treatment a month on average.   

To rebuild we need a coherent workforce plan, underpinned by decent data, appropriate resources, and a contract that's fit for purpose. Otherwise, there is no hope of success.   

The Government must avoid the temptation of easy wins. We understand new laws are coming to remove barriers facing overseas dentists wanting to work in the UK.   

Action here is long overdue but will not address the scale of the crisis facing this service.      

NHS dentistry is haemorrhaging talent by the day because of the dysfunctional system it's built on. Ministers need to do more than try to fill a leaky bucket. They need to commit to fixing it.     

Tackling the mounting cost of care 

The energy price spike is a clear and present danger to both NHS and private dentists.

Even before news of further price hikes this winter, dental inflation stood at over 11%. We're already receiving reports of bills quadrupling. 

The energy price spike is a clear and present danger to both NHS and private dentists.

New pressures risk pushing many practices over the edge. The Government's rescue package is now set to offer support for an initial period of six months. This offers breathing room, but no practice can plan on this basis. We need detail and a long-term commitment.  

For NHS providers, we're pushing for an approach on expenses that keeps pace with the costs of delivering care.

Practices now face the tangible risk of astronomical rises in the Spring. All dentists need real certainty the government will keep doing what's needed to safeguard their businesses from the energy price catastrophe, not just today, but in the months and years ahead. 

Where next?  

The clock is ticking on the PM's 90-day pledge. Our message to the new administration is simple. Work with us not against us, and we can secure change millions of patients will benefit from.  

We had secured a debate – and a vote – in Parliament on 15 September, to push for real reform and fair funding. 

The sad news of the passing of our Royal Patron, Her Majesty the Queen, means we will await a new date to ask you to reach out to your MPs. 

We've fought hard to put dentistry on the agenda. With your help, we can put the new team at the Department of Health under the spotlight and secure a timetable for meaningful reform.