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House of Lords puts the spotlight on dentistry

Today the House of Lords held an oral question session on issues relating to the backlog of dental need as we emerge from the pandemic.

A Labour Peer Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe argued that the recently imposed dental activity targets, which were designed to increase access to dentistry, seemed to be having the reverse effect. She quoted with concern the reports of the biggest dental chain in the country instructing its dentists to focus on check-ups and reduce urgent treatments to meet the targets, limiting access for those who need it most. She urged the Government to look into the impact this target is having on patients who require urgent and complex treatment.

Her Conservative colleague Lord McColl of Dulwich echoed these sentiments. He suggested the Government should "rely on the good sense of dentists to prioritise their patients" and consider following the lead of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where activity targets were less than half those of England.

A Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley questioned whether the targets would continue beyond March, condemning the Government for not offering dentists any clarity on their contractual arrangements just seven weeks from the next financial year. She also called for increased efforts to reform the dental contract, which – after a decade in the pipeline – "continues to be kicked into the long grass".

Baroness Gardner, a retired dentist sitting on the Conservative benches, called for Government to invest in ventilation equipment for dental practices to help bring down fallow time.

Responding for the Opposition, Shadow Health Minister Baroness Thornton said the Minister needed "to go back to the drawing board, because the new NHS activity target was basically forcing dentists to choose check-ups over helping those in pain". She also raised the crucial issue of agonisingly long waits for dental procedures under a general anaesthetic, urging the Government to reveal the size of the waiting lists of children and adults with learning disabilities who need this kind of treatment. It's been almost five months since we came together with Mencap and seven other charities to demand clarity and action on this crucial issue from the Health Secretary – we're grateful to Baroness Thornton for helping us keep up the pressure and speak up for those most vulnerable patients.

Other Lords from across the House raised further important issues including increasing access to NHS dentistry in rural areas, the need for joined-up working between devolved nations on oral health, and the possible links between gum health and likelihood of being seriously affected by COVID-19.

In his answers the Minister Lord Bethell insisted that targets were a "useful way of getting a focus on increasing the throughput of dentistry". We were alarmed that in response to Peers who raised the impact the targets were having on access for patients with urgent and complex needs he suggested such patients needed to "hunt down an appointment" at one of the Urgent Dental Care Centres. With each of these centres serving over 80,000 people, we do not consider this approach an appropriate way to deal with the huge backlog of patients suffering with dental problems. We continue to campaign for the Government to drop the targets and allow dentists to prioritise the patients who need them the most.