Dentists are to be offered cash to take on new patients and given £20,000 “golden hellos” to work in communities with a lack of NHS dental services under plans to boost dentistry across England.
Around a million people who have not seen a dentist for two or more years are expected to benefit as officials offer a “new patient payment” of £15 to £50.
One-off payments of £20,000 are to be awarded to 240 dentists for working in under-served communities for at least three years, according to the plans, which are expected to increase dental appointments across the country by 2.5 million next year.
But leading dentists said the recovery package will not be enough to help people struggling to access dental care.
This week hundreds of people have been queuing in Bristol after an dentist opened up its books for NHS patients.
Leading dentists said that the queues would be replicated around the country if more practices were taking on NHS patients.
Eddie Crouch, chairman of the British Dental Association (BDA), told the PA news agency: “There are towns across this country where any new practice opening would see a repeat of scenes we saw in Bristol.”
Other initiatives announced as part of the NHS dental recovery plan include:
– Dentists will be paid more for their NHS work.
– So-called “dental vans” to be rolled out in rural and coastal areas.
– People will be able to use the NHS app to see which practices in their local area are accepting new patients.
– A “Smile for Life” programme to give advice to new and prospective parents.
– The Government will also launch a consultation on a potential water fluoridation programme to help prevent tooth decay.
The dental recovery plan was to be launched on Wednesday but many of the details were accidentally leaked after health officials sent an early version of the document to MPs of all parties on Tuesday afternoon.
Commenting on the plan, Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee, said: “This recovery plan is not worthy of the title. It won’t halt the exodus from the workforce or offer hope to millions struggling to access care.”
Officials said that the plan was backed by £200 million of Government funding, but Mr Crouch said that the cash was “not new money”, adding: “It’s actually an allocation of the contracts that are already with the dental practices.”
But the Health and Social Care Secretary declined to say whether the dentistry plan is being funded by an underspend in the NHS dentistry budget.
Victoria Atkins was asked about shadow health secretary Wes Streeting’s claim that there was a £400 million underspend on NHS dentistry last year.
She told BBC Breakfast that the Government’s plan is backed by “an additional £200 million”.
Ms Atkins evaded repeated questioning on whether that is coming from an NHS dentistry budget that is far lower than it was 10 years ago, saying: “The budget is £3 billion. We are spending more on the NHS than we ever have.”
In the Commons, the Health Secretary told MPs that the benefits of the plan would begin to be felt from the start of next month.
Asked by Conservative MP Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) when his constituents might feel the plan’s impact, Ms Atkins said: “March 1, that is when the new patient premium comes into force.
“There are other aspects that will take a little bit longer, but we are very clear as to the immediate term benefits, we want to get those out as quickly as possible.”
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper MP said: “Seeing a minister duck and dive on the reality of dental funding cuts will be hard to swallow for millions who have been left waiting for so long under this Government.
“The reality is they’ve left our dental services to rot and now think they can rebuild it with a handful of toothpicks.”
Dentists also said that the recovery package does not address serious concerns about the dental contract.
Dr Simon Chard, former president of British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, told Sky News: “The contract as it is currently is really inadequate … it’s leading to a complete lack of clinicians who can work within the service comfortably.”
Labour said that reforming the contract would be a “week one priority” if the party won the general election.
Mr Streeting told BBC Breakfast: “What the Government’s announced today – much of which has been lifted from what Labour has announced as an emergency dental rescue package – will go some way to plugging the immediate shortfall.
“But what it doesn’t do, and what the dentists are crying out for, is reform of the dentist contract so we can recruit and retain the NHS dentists we need.”
Commenting on the recovery package, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Backed by £200 million, this new recovery plan will deliver millions more NHS dental appointments and provide easier and faster access to care for people right across the country.”
Amanda Pritchard, NHS England chief executive, added: “The health service will now introduce a wide range of practical measures to help make it easier for people to see a dentist, from incentivising dentists to take on new patients, to supporting dentists to be part of the NHS in areas where access is challenging.
“Recovering dentistry is a priority for the NHS and this plan is a significant step towards transforming NHS dental services for the better.”