Desperate to see an NHS dentist? You could wait up to six months

The British Dental Association Scotland is urging immediate clarity from the Scottish Government, following comments from Health and Sport Secretary Jeane Freeman implying that NHS dentistry should be available at pre-pandemic levels.

Jeane Freeman stated on Friday (19 March) that “NHS services… should be as available now as they were before the pandemic started.”

While all treatments are now available from NHS practices, the service is operating at a fraction of its former capacity to keep to strict infection control protocols to limit the spread of the virus. The BDA understands practices across Scotland have been overwhelmed with calls following this statement. 

The Scottish Government is currently only providing enough PPE to treat 10 patients per day (or 5 for Aerosol Generating Procedures involving high-speed instruments) covering just 20-30% of pre-Covid patient numbers.

The BDA has called for real commitment to restore pre-pandemic levels of dentistry. Unlike the Northern Irish and Welsh administrations, the Scottish Government has so far made no commitments to help practices invest in ventilation equipment, that can radically reduce or element the ‘fallow time’ gaps between appointments, designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

It is also seeking urgent interim funding to keep the service sustainable and help practices deal with the unprecedented backlog of patients.

Recent official data indicated that between September and November 2020 the number of adults seen by NHS dentists was around a third of the 2018-19 average, before falling to 28% of the 2018-19 average in December 2020. 

In 2020, children and adults from the most deprived areas were less likely to have seen their dentist within the last two years than those from the least deprived areas (73.5% compared to 85.7% of children and 55.9% compared to 67.1% of adults). These inequalities in access between the most and least deprived areas have grown since 2019, particularly in children.

David McColl, Chair of the British Dental Association’s Scottish Dental Practice Committee, said: “Ministers seem to have forgotten that all dentists are operating at a fraction of their former capacity, to keep to strict infection protocols set by their government.

“With severe limits on access emergency and urgent cases need to be at the front of the queue. Sadly, this slip of the tongue has left phones ringing off the hook in practices across Scotland.

“We are facing an unprecedented backlog, and the Scottish Government needs to provide funding and support to restore routine services. As it stands if check-ups recommenced today, we wouldn’t be able to offer appointments for six months.

“Even before the pandemic Scotland’s oral health inequalities were a national scandal. Now that gap looks set to widen, with public health programmes suspended and millions unable to access care.

“Dentists are losing the chance to act on the early signs of decay, gum disease and oral cancers. If we’re ever going to turn the page we need to see real commitment from Government.”

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Lynda Hamilton Parker is a Scottish PR expert and independent publisher

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