Hundreds of thousands of dental patients in England are to be offered weekend and evening appointments under NHS plans to tackle the backlog exacerbated by the pandemic.
More than 350,000 extra dental appointments are to be made available in February and March, NHS England said, with a new £50m funding pot aimed at fuelling a dentistry “treatment blitz”.
However, senior dentistry sources said the cash was a “drop in the ocean”, with tens of millions of NHS appointments cancelled as a result of Covid-19 and the resulting backlog set to take years to clear.
Some also expressed doubts about whether there would be enough staff to offer the additional appointments, since hundreds of dentists have quit the profession in the last year amid warnings that NHS dentistry is increasingly “hanging by a thread”.
Millions of patients have struggled to access dental care since 2019. Some have spent weeks or months in pain as a result, and others believed they had no option but to conduct “DIY dentistry” while waiting for treatment, or felt coerced into “going private”.
Under the new plans to tackle the backlog, NHS England said dentists involved in the scheme would “be paid more than a third on top of their normal sessional fee” for delivering care outside their core hours.
Dentists said this could involve providing appointments as late as 10pm on weeknights, and slots being offered on Saturdays and Sundays, with children and people with learning disabilities, autism or severe mental health problems being prioritised.
The chief dental officer for England, Sara Hurley, said: “Dental services are a vital part of the NHS, providing oral healthcare to all age groups, and that’s why we have taken this unprecedented action to boost NHS dental services.
“The NHS is now getting key services like dentistry back to pre-pandemic levels – injecting an extra £50m into routine services will help provide checkups and treatment for hundreds and thousands of people.”
The minister for primary care, Maria Caulfield, said the new funding would “urgently give more people access to vital dental care when they need it”.
However, Shawn Charlwood, chair of the British Dental Association’s general dental practice committee, said the extra cash “must be just the start if we are to rebuild a service millions depend on”.
He added: “After a decade of cuts, a cash-starved service risks being offered money that can’t be spent. Hard-pressed practices are working against the clock and many will struggle to find capacity ahead of April for this investment to make a difference.”