Over 150 people gathered in Bury St Edmunds on Sunday to protest the crisis facing dental care. I was proud to stand with them, together with colleagues from the region, in common cause.
We reached out to the campaigners 'Toothless in Suffolk'. They represent an area where NHS dentistry was in crisis long before COVID struck, where already limited access to services has fallen off a cliff during the pandemic.
From failed contracts to underfunding, patients and dentists are now speaking with one voice on the need for change.
Here's why dentists are protesting and why it's so urgent:
Reform can't wait
Britain is a wealthy 21st century nation, so why are we seeing DIY dentistry that belongs in the Victorian era?
The rally heard from people waiting years for treatment, from patients travelling 100 miles for care. We know none of these problems are inevitable, they are the direct results of choices, made by successive governments.
It was heart-breaking meeting people who felt they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. I also met a nurse working in A&E reporting the patients piling in with dental pain. She could see first-hand the pressures failed policies are having across the whole of our NHS.
This is the result of a failed contract that before COVID only funded care for barely half the population. For the other half, the message seems to be 'tough luck'. The government needs to stop box ticking and focusing on targets ahead of patient care, so it works for both dentists and their patients.
Marchers agreed that we need to change a broken system. Local NHS bosses have pledged sticking plaster policies. New contracts are going to be put out to tender. However, those that sign up, will face the same unsustainable future as those that came before.
Some practices are waiting years to fill vacancies. Many colleagues are considering handing back their NHS contracts, retiring early, or leaving dentistry altogether. We simply can't go on like this.
The missing piece isn't just a decent model for NHS dentistry, it's the funding that underpins it. As Toothless in Suffolk organiser Mark Jones told the BBC, "we urge the powers that be to make the right decision and fully fund NHS dental provision."
Simply hiking the NHS charges every year is a tax on our patients. The proceeds don't help improve patient care but go to the Treasury to cover cuts. And we know that these charges also put off those who are most in need of our care.
Across England over 30 million appointments have been lost since lockdown – over 500,000 in Suffolk alone. Yet not one penny of the recent 'catch up programme' for the NHS is heading to dentistry.
The Spending Review next week will decide where the government goes next on this. We are clear that patients should not have to pay more, just so ministers can pay less. Tackling the backlogs and rebuilding this service on firm foundations will require decent and sustainable investment.
COVID can and must be an opportunity
We know the problems facing the families I met last Sunday are now filling up MPs' postbags across the country. Because the whole country is getting a taste of what it's like to be a dental patient in Suffolk.
At Westminster change is promised. 'Build Back Better' and 'levelling up' – we've all heard the slogans. It will be a measure of whether 'reform' means anything if the people who gathered at the weekend need to return in the years to come.
We will continue to make the case across England, with campaigners and partners to ensure there is a dental service for all our patients when they need it. We are the voice of dentists and dental students in the UK and we will continue to campaign on your behalf for a service that we, as dentists want to deliver.