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Treasury tokenism won’t stop dental crisis becoming election issue

So it seems the Government doesn’t want dentistry to be an election issue, and so “hundreds of millions” could be coming in the Spring budget, according to recent reports splashed to the media.

Obviously, we welcome the change in tune from the Treasury, but the shape of this policy raises some real questions.

Firstly, it goes without saying any cash must go hand in hand with radical reform the Government has failed to commit to.

But the cupboard is certainly bare. This week the Department of Health and Social Care report and annual accounts 2022/23 revealed that £2.899bn was spent on NHS dentistry - a level almost unchanged from when the coalition first took power. Years of flatlining budgets have seen spend fall by a third in real terms since 2010 – a real cut of £1bn.

Any new investment can’t be a one-off given the impact of austerity funding and the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis. The Government took forward a time limited injection of £50m in urgent care in early 2022 - and only £14.1m was spent by already struggling practices, many simply unable to fill vacancies.

Reports suggest money may be targeted at rural and coastal communities. Well, this flies in the face of what is a national crisis. Our analysis of the Government’s own data - the GP Survey - indicates unmet need for NHS Dentistry in England was over 12m in 2023, or 1 in 4 of the adult population, with no region unaffected.

The definition of ‘rural’ is not yet known, but many have already warned the Government must not put its political priorities ahead of patient need.

If this isn’t new money, there’s every risk we will see big chunks of an already inadequate budget redeployed from hard hit urban areas to the leafy shires. It’s entirely plausible that this could see clawback diverted from ‘Red Wall’ to ‘Blue Wall’ as Ministers chase votes.

And these underspends in the dental budget have reached well over £400m. These are now being raided - with official blessing - by Integrated Care Boards to balance significant deficits. Even setting aside a decade of real terms cuts, any new spend would need to be at least at this level to constitute an ‘increase’ in funding.

“It’s welcome news that the Government is finally changing its tune, but any one-off ‘boost’ won’t undo the damage caused by a decade of savage cuts” says Eddie Crouch.

“Tokenism from the Treasury really won’t stop this crisis becoming an election issue. NHS dentistry will only survive if we see real reform and fair funding.”

The Nuffield Trust warned last month the service faces the gravest crisis in its 75-year history, and universal access to care may be dead without both radical reform and investment.

The Government has declined to endorse the key recommendation from the Health and Social Care Committee to make a decisive break from the discredited contract fuelling the current crisis. And we will not stop keeping the pressure up.

NHS Dentistry

Leading the case for contract reform

Dentists across the UK are working to NHS contracts that are not fit for purpose. Without change there is no hope of ending an access crisis impacting millions of patients. We lead the case for change on behalf of all dentists, in formal negotiations, and in our campaign work to fight for fair pay.