Dentists have warned that tens of thousands of children have been left in pain for more than a year, as new figures reveal the number of tooth extractions for children in hospital in England more than halved during the pandemic.
The number of extractions performed on decayed teeth in children aged 19 and under decreased from 35,190 in 2019-20 to 14,615 in 2020-21, data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities shows.
The British Dental Association (BDA) said the fall in procedures, which take place in hospital under general anaesthetic, did not reflect any change in demand.
Charlotte Waite, the chair of the BDA’s England community dental services committee, said: “Tooth extractions among children have collapsed, but the level of demand hasn’t gone anywhere. Covid has simply left tens of thousands in pain, potentially waiting years for treatment they desperately need.
“Government has yet to offer real clarity on the scale of the backlog, or a credible plan to tackle it.”
The figures show that the proportion of extractions as a result of decay are virtually unchanged on levels seen a decade ago. The data also shows that children from the poorest areas are three times more likely to have extractions than those from the most affluent communities.
More than 12.5m NHS dental appointments for children had been lost in England since lockdown, the BDA said, while tooth extractions had been the No 1 reason for hospital admissions among young children for a generation.
The BDA said full disclosure was required on waiting times for hospital tooth-extraction procedures, adding that “tens of thousands of children will be left in pain, facing difficulties learning, eating and sleeping for over a year”.
NHS England has previously said there are significant gaps in official data, owing to wide-ranging coding and reporting issues.
An NHS report on hospital dentistry published in February 2021 stated: “We found gaps and anomalies in the collection of data through hospital episode statistics, which limits our understanding of both patient need and the people doing the work, which, in turn, affects our ability to measure outcomes, assure quality and plan the workforce we need.”
The BDA joined sector leaders and the learning disability charity Mencap early in the pandemic in pressing the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, to develop an urgent action plan and commission a review into the true scale of extractions under general anaesthetic. No plan had been delivered to date, the BDA said.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “We have provided £50m to fund up to 350,000 extra NHS dental appointments and we are growing the workforce so people can get the care they need.
“Dentists prioritised vulnerable groups and urgent care throughout the pandemic while continuing to provide free care to groups such as pregnant women, young people and those on low-income benefits.
“We are committed to levelling up dental health across the country and through our Health and Care Act, we will make it simpler to add fluoride to water in more areas.”
The Guardian has revealed that many patients in south-west England are being left in dental pain because they are unable to register for NHS care, with some so desperate they are resorting to DIY treatment.
The charity Healthwatch in Somerset has reported that it is almost impossible for a new patient to register for an NHS dentist in the county, which is leading to adults and children living in agony, self-treating, or travelling out of the area for help.