In her fortnightly column, Blackburn MP Kate Hollern has criticised the Conservatives' record on NHS dentistry, with funding falling and patients unable to get treatment.

Last week, Labour led a debate in Parliament on the crisis in NHS dentistry.

After 14 years of Conservative mismanagement, the list of public services that are at breaking point is embarrassingly long. Amongst these, NHS dentistry is a prime example.

The national picture is dire. Since 2010, funding for dental services in England has fallen by eight per cent in real terms, with the number of NHS (as opposed to private) practices falling by more than 1,200 in the five years prior to the pandemic.

In 2021 alone, 2,000 dentists quit the NHS, with many stating that they felt undervalued and under-resourced.

Recent analysis revealed that only three out of the 11 dental practices in Blackburn which responded to a recent FOI request are still accepting new adult NHS patients.

Lancashire Telegraph: Kate HollernKate Hollern (Image: UK Parliament)

In other words, 73 per cent of practices in my constituency are not accepting new patients.

Blackburn has historically one of the worst records for child tooth decay in the country. As recently as 2022, five-year-olds in Blackburn had the worst record in England for tooth decay.  

However, there have been tremendous efforts by the council, working in partnership with our local dentists, to counter the appalling national situation at a local level.

As part of the Blackburn with Darwen Oral Health Improvement Partnership Strategy, there has been an 11 per cent reduction in tooth decay over the past 12 months, and significant improvements have been made to oral health standards.

I applaud the work being carried out in Blackburn with Darwen but, if we are to reflect this upwards trend nationally, urgent action is needed at Government level.

Recent Healthwatch polling indicates one in 10 people in England ended up paying for private dental treatment in the last 12 months because they could not find an NHS dentist.

It is a moral outrage that the managed decline of NHS dentistry has left millions with no choice: either go private or go without.

According to YouGov polling, one in 10 adults have attempted some form of DIY dentistry.

The number one reason young children aged six to 10 are admitted to hospital is rotting teeth.

This is simply unacceptable for one of the largest economies in the world in 2024.

The Nuffield Trust has stated NHS dentistry is “at its most perilous point in its 75-year history”.

Its stark report into the crisis suggested that NHS dentistry may have to be scaled back and made available only to the least well-off. Worryingly, the Government are piloting such a scheme in Cornwall.

Dentistry simply cannot be treated as an optional extra. Dentists are often the first health professionals to spot symptoms of oral cancer, so the decline of NHS dentistry is now having a deeply concerning impact on oral cancer detection and outcomes.

The Oral Health Foundation has warned that the dentistry access crisis has fuelled the 46 per cent rise in mouth cancer deaths in a decade.

The NHS dental contract is not fit for purpose. NHS dentists want to do more NHS work, but the Government are standing in their way.

The dental contract in its current form discourages taking on new NHS patients, pushes dentists towards the private sector and acts as a barrier to prevention.

The Government has had 14 years to reform it. Why hasn’t it?

As with so many other policy areas, the Conservatives’ meagre attempts to address the problem don’t go anywhere near far enough. The Government promised to publish its dental recovery plan by the summer of 2023, which has yet to materialise.

The minor tweaks that the Government made to the dental contract in October 2022 were wholly insufficient, and the promise to recruit more dentists in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan has failed to have an immediate impact.

In fact, in November 2023, NHS England granted Integrated Care Boards permission to use dentistry underspends to balance their bottom lines.

This is despite the Prime Minister’s pledge to protect the budget for NHS dentistry. Wider reform is urgently needed.

Labour’s dentistry rescue plan was laid before the House last week. This 10-year plan for change and modernisation must tackle the problems with the NHS dental contract – so it delivers for patients and staff – and prioritises the prevention of poor oral health and cutting oral health inequalities.

To improve patient access and secure the future of NHS dentistry, we must provide it with the staff, technology, resources, and reform it so vitally needs.

The plan, which would be funded by abolishing the non-dom tax status, would see 700,000 more urgent appointments, incentives for new dentists to work in areas with the greatest need, supervised toothbrushing in schools for three to five-year-olds, and reform of the dental contract to rebuild the service in the long run. Patients need healthcare more than the ultra-wealthy need a tax break.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives voted down Labour’s motion in the Commons last Tuesday. The Tories’ legacy on NHS dentistry is one of decay.

Kate Hollern is Labour MP for Blackburn.