Despite a surge in the number of dental treatments carried out across England, sector leaders have warned that NHS dentistry is on its “last legs”.
New figures from NHS Digital show that 26.4 million courses of treatment were delivered by NHS dentists between April 2021 and March 22, more than double the 12 million reported in the previous 12 months – which were heavily impacted by the pandemic.
Practices were instructed to close and cease all routine dental care from March 25 to June 8 2020, while dentists and dental surgeons had to stick to “The Government will be fooling itself and millions of patients if it attempts to put a gloss on these figures.
But the latest figures show that the dental sector has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels of activity, sitting at around two-thirds (69%) of the 38.4 million courses of treatment provided in 2019-20.
NHS Digital also said that 16.4 million adults in England were seen for NHS dental treatment in the 24 months up to June 2022, a 9.5% drop compared to the 18.1 million seen in 24 months up to June 2021.
It was also 25% lower than the 22 million adults seen in the 24 months up to June 2019.
Some 5.6 million children were seen in the 12 months up to June 2022, a 42% increase to the 12 months up to June 2021 when 3.9 million were seen, but 20% lower than the seven million in the 12 months to June 2019, it added.
The British Dental Association (BDA) said the figures, published on Thursday, showed NHS dentistry was on its “last legs” and underlined the need for radical and urgent change.
Its chair Eddie Crouch said: “What we’re seeing isn’t a recovery, but a service on its last legs.
“The Government will be fooling itself and millions of patients if it attempts to put a gloss on these figures.
“NHS dentistry is lightyears away from where it needs to be.
“Unless ministers step up and deliver much needed reform and decent funding, this will remain the new normal.”
The BDA said that more than a year’s worth of NHS dental appointments had been lost since lockdown, which has created a backlog that will take years to clear.
Patients are now presenting with higher levels of need, having stored up problems as a result of ongoing access problems, it added.
The BDA said that while both Tory leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak had pledged urgent reform of NHS dentistry, it had seen no indication that the Treasury will be mandated to provide the cash needed to rebuild and reform of services.
The association estimates it will take an extra £880 million a year to restore resources to 2010 levels.
It added that changes to the NHS dentistry contract announced last month had no new funding attached and will do nothing to “meaningfully expand access or halt the exodus from the NHS”.
The new data comes after a British Dental Association (BDA) and BBC analysis earlier this month found that across England 91% of NHS practices were not accepting new adult patients – 4,933 of 5,416 – rising to 97% in the East Midlands, and 98% in the South West, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.
And a BDA poll of 2,200 high street dentists in England found that 45% have reduced their NHS commitment since the start of the pandemic.