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We need more than 'pledges': Action needed on NHS dentistry

​This service will only survive with fair funding and real reform.

Eddie Crouch
Eddie Crouch Chair, British Dental Association

It’s been a week like no other. Over the course of 24 hours I found myself travelling from Birmingham to Manchester and down to Westminster, racing between TV studios and Committee rooms, to hold this government to account on its record on NHS dentistry.

Many of your other representatives have been speaking to the media, while staff work behind the scenes. I’ve been genuinely touched by messages I’ve received from members saying thank you, but in all honestly thanks aren’t required.

It’s our job to fight our members’ corner. We’ve made real progress this week, but no plaudits are sought or necessary. We will keep on fighting until our members working in the NHS and the patients they treat get a fair deal from government.

In the months since we worked with the BBC on landmark research on NHS access, we’ve seen no shortage of pledges but no real action. It’s now clear both government and opposition need to wake up if we’re going to save this service.

We’re winning the argument for reform, but we saw Ministers and officials provide misleading evidence to MPs, on the supposed ‘recovery’ of NHS dentistry.

We won’t let this drop. The exodus of dentists from the NHS remains in motion and millions are still going without the care needed.

Fair Funding?

See the tweet here.

The week began with the largest increase in NHS charges on record.

We need fair funding, but this approach won’t put a penny into a struggling service, and will hurt the patients who need us most.

I took to the airwaves to set out clearly that our patients shouldn’t have to pay more just so ministers can pay less.

Ministers now need to explain why identical treatment now costs over £100 more in England than in Wales."

This has gone on for a decade – and Ministers now need to explain why identical treatment now costs over £100 more in England than in Wales. It’s obscene.

The national press has heeded the warning of damning polls that millions are now delaying or avoiding care already for reasons of cost.

We encourage all members to keep pushing this message. Posters and social media assets are available.

Real Reform?

When we needed real reform, we’ve had minor tweaks.

None of the recent marginal changes will give dentists a reason to stay in the NHS or meaningfully expand access to care.

In their final evidence session MPs from the Health and Social Care Committee probed what success NHS England have had in putting 'the mouth back in the body'.

Witnesses painted a wholly misleading picture of a service on the road to recovery.

The responses sidestepped the grim reality of widening oral health inequality, a collapse in state funding for NHS dentistry, and an exodus of dentists from the NHS that predates COVID.

Witnesses painted a wholly misleading picture of a service on the road to recovery. On activity and workforce numbers we got the same spin we’ve heard at PMQs week after week.

Yes, the Minister Neil O’Brien made a pledge to ‘overhaul’ the contract. He even said that the Government’s ambition is that ‘everybody’ should have access to an NHS dentist. But he went on to list just more tweaks, rather than a serious strategic vision to get us there.

The Minister said there was nothing to be learned from a decade of pilots and prototypes. “The experiments are not encouraging” he claimed. The reality is patients and dentists valued new models, the missing piece was and remains adequate funding.

A plan to have a plan

After years of MPs calling for a recovery plan for dentistry this week the Government just offered a plan to have a plan.

Announced just minutes before the Minister was set to be hauled over the coals by the Committee it’s a response to the tidal wave of media and political pressure we’re bringing to bare. There’s no detail, no timeline, and we need more.

In the weeks ahead the Committee will offer its recommendations to government. When Shawn Charlwood gave evidence last month he warned all Ministers are doing at the moment is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the service slowly slips into the sea.

Committee chair Steve Brine read those lines right back to Neil O’Brien who failed to adequately counter the claim. The Minster said the marginal changes have been ‘pretty widely welcomed’. Well in his Department perhaps.

Since we gave evidence we’ve seen mass closures. This really is make or break.

There’s no ambition, there’s no plan. This Committee need to provide an urgent ‘to-do list’ for government if we’re going to save this service.