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Omicron threat leaves dentists struggling to restore services

We have warned that recent moves to ease the high levels of pandemic restrictions facing dental practices are unlikely to soften access problems.

New evidence from Healthwatch England highlights major issues with access to dental care among children.

According to our recent survey of high street dentists in England:

  • Nearly a third of dentists (33%) have said they have no intention of relaxing COVID precautions, in line with new protocols issued by NHS England in November. Half say the arrival of the Omicron variant has had a high impact on their willingness to ease restrictions.
  • Considering wider winter pressures and the expected surge in other conditions like flu and the common cold, 62% say the changes – which place patients on two pathways given risk of respiratory infection – will make little to no difference to the volumes of patients they can treat.
  • Over 40% of dentists indicate they are now likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months given the current pressures on the service. Over half state they are likely to reduce their NHS commitment. One in 10 estimate their practices will close in the next 12 months.
  • 72% state the lack of clarity over the government’s controversial imposed activity targets – widely expected to increase on 1 January 2022 – are having a high impact on their morale. 70% say the same given uncertainty over the direction of pledged reforms to the service.
  • Nearly two thirds of practices (62%) estimate they are continuing to operate under 70% of their pre-COVID capacity.

Alongside Healthwatch England we issued a joint message to Chancellor Rishi Sunak ahead of the budget to guarantee funding for the rebuild and recovery of NHS dental services. Over 37 million NHS appointments have been lost since lockdown in England alone, over 11 million for children.

At this time not a penny of the government’s multi-billion-pound catch-up programme has been allocated to primary care dentistry and we continue to call for dentistry to be prioritised.

While the government has pledged reform of NHS dentistry by April 2022, we have consistently warned that steps must be taken to stem the flow of talent from the workforce and to provide the necessary resources to underpin any new system.