Lancashire dentists deal with 'unprecedented backlog' of appointments amid Covid pandemic restrictions
Lockdown may have ended in England, but healthcare providers including dental practices are still subject to restrictions - which some fear are taking a "terrible toll" on dentists and patients.
In November, it was revealed the pandemic had affected dental appointment availability so severely that tens of thousands of patients nationwide were turning up at A&E departments in desperate search of treatment.
In the North West alone in 2019/20, some 9,984 people went to A&E with tooth complaints, costing the NHS around £1.6 million.
But although lockdown restrictions have now ended in England the requirement of PPE, social distancing and infection prevention and control remains in healthcare settings, including dental practices.
The British Dental Association (BDA), which represents dentists, said the pandemic restrictions have taken a "terrible toll" on both dentists and patients.
It estimated that around 70,000 appointments had been lost since March 2020 in Blackpool.
Blackpool dental practices were still running at "a fraction of their former capacity", the BDA added, while dealing with huge numbers of backlogged appointments.
According to the organisation's feedback, some 47 per cent of dentists in England reported considering early retirement or a career change if current Covid guidance remains in place.
The same proportion said they were likely to reduce their NHS commitment, which could have a serious impact on NHS appointment availability in England.
But even before the pandemic struck, the Association worried that dentistry in the country was already struggling to keep up with patient demand - which has been exacerbated even further by the virus' restrictions.
Shawn Charlwood, chairman of BDA's general dental practice committee, said: "NHS dentistry had been in crisis before Covid struck, as an 'underfunded and overstretched service limped on, leaving millions with few options.' Since lockdown, that crisis had reached new levels.
“Owing to ongoing restrictions, practices in Blackpool are still running at a fraction of their former capacity, while dealing with an unprecedented backlog.
"England is the only UK nation where the government had not committed to provide capital funding for ventilation systems to enable practices to increase patient numbers while keeping to infection control restrictions.We need support from government, and nothing less than root and branch reform of the way this service operates.
“Unless we see real change, these headlines will become the norm, and NHS dentistry will exist in name only."
Since the pandemic began, over 9 million children in England have missed out on seeing a dentist, and the BDA called on the Government to invest in tooth decay prevention in the absence of routine appointments.
Numbers of adult patients being able to access appointments or treatment in Lancashire has also been in sharp decline since March 2020.
In Blackpool, 51,030 NHS patients were seen by their dentist between December 2018 and December 2020 - compared to 57,467 between 2017 and 2019.
During the same periods, 85,980 NHS patients in Wyre and Fylde were seen, a drop from 92,894.
And even fewer NHS patients under Greater Preston CCGs saw their dentist between December 2018 and 2020 - with 69,052 attending an appointment, down from 76,251.
According to a damning report by Healthwatch England, accessing NHS dental appointments has been a "significant issue" for patients, with a staggering 80 per cent of 1,375 people informing the watchdog they struggled to see a dentist.
Some 59 per cent of those giving feedback also reported a negative experience with their care.
Healthwatch said the backlog of care built up over the last 18 months has made it even more difficult for patients to access appointments in a timely manner.
The watchdog's official January - March 2021 report said some patients were told to fill their own teeth with temporary filling materials, and a third of people reported NHS treatment as unaffordable.
Others were told they could be waiting "up to three years" for a routine appointment.
Jacob Lant, head of policy and research said: "Accessing an NHS dentist is still a significant issue for people, with our services continuing to hear concerns all across the country from people who are struggling to get both emergency treatment and more routine care.
“But finding an NHS dentist was challenging even before Covid-19 struck. The backlog of care built up over the last 18 months is only making this worse and will probably continue to be a problem in the medium term.
“We have called on the NHS to speed up NHS dental reform to improve access and make dental care more affordable.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Dental practices have been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with over 700 practices providing additional emergency dental treatment. They are prioritising urgent dental care and patients with the greatest clinical need followed by routine appointments.
“We continue to support the dental sector and are working closely with the NHS to increase access to NHS dental care as fast as possible, while protecting staff and patients.”