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Editorial: To Stop the Rot in NHS dentistry we must look back to its founding principles

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Just a few weeks ago, the country celebrated the Coronation of King Charles III. It was an event that reflected changing times, bringing together different communities from across the nation and Commonwealth, and representatives of all faiths and none. But the real spirit of the coronation weekend wasn’t in Westminster Abbey, nor on the balcony at Buckingham palace, it was in the people who came together to support each other and celebrate together.

All across Bradford and the country, in every neighbourhood, residents held street parties, and community and faith groups opened their doors for galas and garden parties. Those community connections were just as important as what was happening in London.

When Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne seventy years ago, it was also a time of great change for the country. Just a decade earlier, renowned social reformer Sir William Beveridge argued that despite all the turmoil faced by Britain in the midst of the Second World War, it was time to create ‘freedom from want’ across British society. With passion and vision, he put forward a revolutionary idea that now sits at the core of British identity – our National Health Service, which a Labour government put in place in 1948.

Almost eight decades have passed, and the UK is again facing challenging times at home and abroad. Following more than a decade of Conservative austerity, and now with an unprecedented cost of living crisis, families from all backgrounds are struggling to pay bills, put food on the table, and access the healthcare services they need.

We have all faced the struggle of getting a GP appointment – on hold at 8am in the hope we can secure a desperately needed appointment. In thirteen years of Conservative government, hundreds of pharmacies have closed, and 2,000 GPs have been cut.

And while pharmacies can deal with many of the most common issues, lack of access to GP appointments forces people to wait until their symptoms become severe. GPs themselves are now under-resourced to meet the needs of their patients.

The bottom line is that we need more doctors and nurses so that patients come first. Whether it’s a face-to-face appointment or over the phone, this needs to be a patient-led choice.

Sadly, NHS Dentistry fares no better. A shocking 98% of dental practices in Bradford do not accept new NHS patients, and 80% of dentists in England are not taking on new child NHS patients. This situation is a rotten expression of a government that has run out of energy and ideas.

Despite cross-party support for reforming NHS dentistry being clear throughout a debate I recently led in Parliament, the government continues to bury its head in the sand. When I challenged the Prime Minister on the matter, he dismissed my concerns out of hand, ignoring the lived experience of the 6 million people who tried and failed to get a dental appointment last year.

With the system so obviously broken, and the Conservative government so clearly out-of-touch, what could a future Labour government do to restore NHS dentistry?

A founding principle of the NHS was a shift from people only seeking treatment when the pain is unbearable, to a service with regular check-ups to spot problems early. The answer, as true in 2023 as it was in the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is that NHS dentistry must be based on prevention.

Investment must be targeted towards the areas that need it most, like Bradford. By making dental care a priority at all levels of healthcare, dentists would be better positioned to help treat the causes, not the symptoms, of dental decay.

Judith visits a local dentist

We could also resurrect NHS School dentistry. In 2022, tooth decay was the single most common reason for hospital admission of children between the ages of 6 and 10. By integrating dental care into schools, we can protect our children’s teeth before any serious damage occurs.

This Conservative government repeats well-rehearsed lines about ‘sensible’ finances. It is now plain to see that Conservative mismanagement has left our GP, hospital, and dental services in chaos.

But we know doing it right can make all the difference. In my own Bradford South constituency in 2017, I worked with the Telegraph & Argus and Government ministers on a ‘Stop-the-Rot’ campaign that reinvested £250,000 into local dental services over three years. With this targeted lump sum, 3,000 new NHS dental appointments were made available to people right across my constituency.

We have already proved that targeted investment is possible. This will be the sensible future option for this country’s finances.

The solutions to these crises exist. The country is crying out for a government willing to enact the necessary changes.


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