Below is the speech that I intended to deliver in the debate in Parliament about ‘Covid and Dentistry’. Unfortunately due to time constraints I was not called to speak by the Speaker.
Thank you Mr Speaker.
I would like to pay tribute to the Honourable Member for Putney for securing this debate at a crucial time for our dentists.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all dentists, hygienists and staff in dental practices in my Stockport constituency and across Britain for continuing to deliver above and beyond throughout this pandemic. Stockport and Greater Manchester have been in lockdown and Tier 4 restrictions for many months now which has meant dentists have been forced to work in very challenging and dangerous conditions.
I would also like to thank the British Dental Association for giving me a clearer picture of the current situation, and for standing up for dentists and dental students on this issue.
Our dentists have consistently delivered a crucial service for our communities throughout this crisis. However, instead of helping to ease the burden on an already overwhelmed sector, and put measures in place to protect patients and staff, the Government has instead placed arbitrary targets on NHS dental practices.
As colleagues on both sides of this House have already pointed out, the decision to increase the target from 20 per cent to 45 per cent of pre-pandemic activity and threaten steep financial penalties, risks devastating NHS dental services in England, with the majority of practices likely to miss this threshold given the current Covid restrictions.
Indeed, the Chair of the British Dental Association’s General Practice Committee recently said – and I quote – “This move will actively undermine patient care. Ministers are instructing dentists to churn through routine appointments against the clock, rather than deal with a huge backlog of urgent cases. Dentists wanting to do the right thing by their patients will now be punished for it. To stay financially viable we are being made to choose the worried well over people in pain.”
Mr/ Madam Speaker/ Deputy Speaker, it is therefore staggering that the Government should wish to impose such targets. In addition to threatening the health of dental staff and patients, this move could drive many practices to breaking point.
At a time when practices need more, not less, time to clean their operating rooms and instruments and make them safe for use, it is completely wrong for such binding conditions to be imposed on dentists.
One dentist who wrote to me and works in a practice in my constituency said her practice had been forced to close one of its three surgeries to reduce footfall and enable safe distancing of staff and patients. Furthermore, complicated procedures which require the use of an aerosol (for example when using a drill) require a 25-minute fallow period, followed by an additional 15 minutes of enhanced cleaning. Those two factors alone have resulted in a considerable drop in her practice.
In her email to me – and again I quote – she said: ‘Small practices will not hit these targets resulting in loss of NHS dentistry in areas where it is needed most. Worsening Covid rates will impact our staff, their families and our patients making the targets even harder to reach. To try and hit these targets we will be forced to have more patients in the practice so increasing cross infection risk.‘
Will the Minister explain to this House why dentists were only given five working days to prepare when guidance was issued just three days before Christmas Day, on the 22nd December? Not only was that unreasonable it was also completely impractical and unworkable.
This sector was already overburdened even before this crisis began, with years of cuts to the sector resulting in existing staff being overworked and underpaid and high numbers of cases of burnout, as well as recruitment and retention problems. Indeed, many of my constituents already struggled to register with an NHS dentist anyway and were left in a difficult position of missing out altogether if they couldn’t afford private dental treatment.
That is why the Government must provide a dedicated package of support for dentists. There simply is not enough for them to survive at this point in time, with no support beyond furlough and government credit. That’s why, worryingly, more than 50 per cent estimate they will struggle to keep their doors open beyond the end of this year.
The Government must act now before it’s too late, and follow the example set by the Welsh Government in abandoning its ill-thought-out 45% target and prioritise patient and staff safety.