DENTISTS provided more than 1,500 fewer free treatments to patients in Blackburn with Darwen in the first half of this financial year, new figures reveal.

The British Dental Association says the system for claiming free care is a “nightmare by design”, and has led to thousands of fines and a huge drop in attendance – which will be made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adult patients in Blackburn with Darwen received 14,265 courses of treatment exempt from charges in the first six months of 2019-20, a new NHS Digital biannual report shows.

This was 1,708 fewer than during the same period a year earlier – an 11% drop in treatments.

And it represented a 32% fall from the first half of 2013-14, the earliest year with comparable data.

Free treatments – offered to low-income groups, the elderly, pregnant women and full-time students – dropped by 6% across England in the first six months of 2019-20 compared to a year previously.

Compared to 2013-14, dental care exempt from charges plummeted by almost a third.

Charlotte Waite, chairwoman of the BDA's community dental services committee, said NHS dentistry will see a huge drop during the pandemic, but added that the fall in free care was “entirely man-made”.

She added: “The system by which many often vulnerable patients claim is a nightmare by design, where mistakes come with a £100 penalty charge.

“It’s left hundreds of thousands of innocent people facing fines and encouraged millions more to miss out on care.

"Parliament instructed government to change tack, but sadly patients who tick the wrong box on a form are still being treated like fraudsters."

The NHS recently launched a video campaign warning that “not all benefits entitle you to free treatment”, and that false claims – even those done by mistake – could result in a £100 fine.

It points viewers towards an online “eligibility checker” for those who want to find out if they are entitled to free treatment, or help with costs.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We want everyone to have access to high-quality dental care, wherever they live – in the last two years nearly 22 million adults were seen by a dentist, and in the last year more than 7 million children have been seen.

“Nationally, we are monitoring access to dentistry closely and are working with NHS England to look at what further action can be taken.”