Rishi Sunak has been accused of making a U-turn on his pledge to restore NHS dentistry as experts say his new “recovery plan” does not offer enough money to incentivise dentists to take on extra NHS patients.
The prime minister’s long-awaited proposals have been criticised for failing to ringfence funding for the dental sector and reform the NHS dentistry contract, which means millions across the country will continue to struggle to access care.
Sunak’s plan, described as the means to “put NHS dentistry on a sustainable footing”, comes after police were called to manage a queue of hundreds of people outside a reopened dental practice in Bristol on Monday.
Under the plan, NHS dentists will be given a “new patient” payment of between £15 and £50, depending on the treatment needed, to help care for a million new patients who have not seen a dentist in two years or more.
The British Dental Association (BDA) has said the £200m pledged by the government is less than half of the underspends in the budget expected this year, leaving no new money for the promised new patient premium.
The government accidentally sent details of the scheme to all MPs on Tuesday afternoon, which included the plan to offer NHS dentists cash incentives to take on extra patients and a new scheme to send dental teams to schools to tackle tooth decay, which appears to have been scrapped.
Sunak was praised for offering parents and parents-to-be advice on how to take care of babies’ gums and milk teeth as part of a “Smile for Life” programme. Dental vans will be deployed in rural and coastal areas to reach the most isolated communities.
But Shawn Charlwood, the chair of the BDA’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. Nothing here meets government’s stated ambitions, or makes this service fit for the future.
“Ministers wanted to stop dentistry becoming an election issue. By rearranging the deckchairs they’ve achieved the exact opposite. The crisis will remain a burning issue in communities across this country until we get real change.”
Labour accused the government of stealing its dentist recruitment plans and proposals on supervised toothbrushing that were rubbished by a number of Conservative MPs earlier this year.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said: “After 14 years of Conservative neglect, patients are desperately queuing around the block to see a dentist, literally pulling their own teeth out, and tooth decay is the No 1 reason for six- to 10-year-olds being admitted to hospital.
“The Conservatives are only promising to do something about it now there’s an election coming. By adopting Labour’s proposals for recruitment and supervised toothbrushing, they are finally admitting that they are out of ideas of their own. It will be left to the next Labour government to rescue NHS dentistry and get patients seen on time once again.”
According to the BDA, 23,577 dentists carried out NHS work in the 2022-23 financial year, the lowest number since 2012-13 and a reduction of 1,100 dentists compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Four in five dentists across England are not taking on new NHS patients, and according to analysis by the Labour party 71.1% are not accepting children.
The BDA has said the £3bn dental budget has remained static for a decade and has not accounted for inflation and rising demand. It says the budget has been cut in real terms by more than £1bn since 2010.