Campaigners unimpressed by government response to dentist deficit concerns
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Campaigners have hit out at the government's response to concerns over NHS dentistry provision in Suffolk.
A group lobbying for the restoration of local NHS dental services said people were "literally pulling out teeth" over the issue.
Toothless in Suffolk said it was unimpressed with a response from Health Secretary Sajid Javid to a letter sent by Suffolk Coastal MP Thérèse Coffey on behalf of constituents.
The Secretary of State's response sought to provide reassurance that people were "free to attend any dental practice that holds a contract to deliver NHS care and is taking new patients", going on to point out there were "no geographical restrictions on which practice a patient may attend", although practices "may not always have the capacity to take new NHS patients".
Mark Jones, of Toothless in Suffolk, which will be staging a march and rally in Bury St Edmunds on October 17, said: "We're not impressed by the letter at all.
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"People are literally pulling their teeth out over this issue.
"We're not at all filled with confidence that this is being treated with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.
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"Everyone should be able to walk to their local doctor, post office and library, and dentistry should be no different, but it seems we have to travel miles for the privilege – if we're lucky enough to get somewhere on the NHS.
"We've heard of people being told by out-of-hours staff to travel to Leicester.
"We don't bandy around the word crisis lightly, but we're hearing about the real struggles people are having – physically and financially. The present contract system is unworkable."
In April, the mydentist practice in Leiston closed its doors a year after the loss of the town’s only other dentist, run by Bupa.
Dr Coffey said: “The lack of NHS dental provision has become an increasing issue here in East Suffolk, especially in Leiston – and I’ve been pressing the case on behalf of patients.
"NHS England replied to me this week confirming that they’ve started a procurement exercise to increase capacity.
"While this is welcome news, it’s not due to start until July 2022, which is simply not good enough.
"I will now write to the new Chief Executive of NHS England, Alison Pritchard, and the Chairman, Lord David Prior, asking them to intervene, focussing on an interim solution.
"I was previously promised that the NHS would up capacity at other local practices. This should be entirely possible considering dentists have contacted me saying they are willing to help. I will continue to keep the pressure up.”
Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, has previously warned of a "dental disaster" if practices continued to shut down or go private and leave people with no access to local care.
Of 2,000 people surveyed by Healthwatch England, 30% reported feeling pressured into paying private fees.
Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee, previously told this paper of an "access crisis" brewing long before the Covid pandemic, due to the government's reliance on revenue from patient charges and a target-driven dental contract in place since 2006.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said all dental practices had been able to deliver their full range of face-to-face care since last June, with more than 700 practices that opened during the first pandemic peak remaining open.
They added: “We continue to support the dental sector and we are working closely with the NHS to increase access to high quality, affordable dental care as fast as possible, while protecting staff and patients. The NHS has a duty to commission dental services to meet local need.”