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How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the government’s spending on NHS dentistry since 2020?

  • A blog by Stephanie Cockburn looking at what action has been taken by the government to promote better access to NHS dentistry since COVID-19

    By Stephanie Cockburn

Have you been struggling to book a routine NHS dental appointment since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions? According to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the government has acknowledged queues ‘around the block’ for these appointments and will be investing in the NHS to make it a better place for dentistry.

The current ‘NHS dentistry crisis’

Unprecedented backlogs developed within dental practices following the announcement of lockdowns in the UK during the height of the pandemic. Understandably, at the time, there was nothing that could be done but follow government guidance and patients were left with no choice but to cancel or reschedule appointments. The Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) at the Royal College of Surgeons of England has carried out research recently which suggests that 40% of dentists report that it will take 12 months or more to tackle this backlog. Continual social distancing guidance, staff shortages, inadequate ventilation and limited availability to surgery space are amongst some of the reasons why dentists are finding it hard to get on top of the backlog.

Furthermore, issues which were present prior to Covid 19 with a flawed NHS contract between the NHS and dental professionals (as drawn up by the government) still continue today. These issues include the pressure of a very target-driven NHS dentistry system which may threaten recruitment and retention of dental professionals; budget cuts and an increase in public charges which is not sustainable for those who need dental care but cannot afford it.

The British Dental Association (BDA) is calling for a way out of the current ‘NHS dentistry crisis’ and lobbying politicians for their support for a solution and reform of the NHS dentistry contract.

What action has been taken?

On 16 August 2020, an announcement was made that Public Health England would be scrapped, allegedly due to the way it handled the COVID-19 crisis, and a new organisation called the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) has been created in replacement. The dental profession were worried that dentistry had been moved even further down the agenda and would be seen as even less of a priority within the NHS than before.

However, on 29 March 2021, an NHS dental contract reform and arrangements letter was published between NHS England, Minister Jo Churchill and the Chief Dental Officer. NHS England and the British Dental Association issued a joint statement about how they were committed to pursuing rapid change across the next year and how this would be welcome amongst dental professionals seeking the progression of the reforms to the current contract which is simply no longer working.

Furthermore, two parliamentary debates took place on 25 May 2021 to discuss NHS dentistry in detail.

Individual Members of Parliament have acknowledged the need for change because impossible targets are being imposed on the dental profession in already difficult times. Some MPs went as far as calling NHS dentistry ‘broken’ and that we were ‘sleepwalking into the biggest oral health crisis since the creation of the NHS’.

Whilst the profession is under strain there is the risk of dental negligence occurring and patients’ safety can be unnecessarily compromised. We can only hope that reform to the current NHS dentistry contract is forthcoming without delay.

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