Last weekend, the Labour Party announced that if elected it would scrap ‘band one’ dentistry charges, which cover a check up, a scale and polish, and any X-rays that may be needed.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, claimed that these charges put people off getting checkups, allowing dental problems to build up and leading to greater expense for the NHS in the long run. ‘With 135,000 patients presenting at A&E with dental problems every year, it’s time we put prevention at the heart of our approach to health.’ The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also indicated that this was just the start. ‘This is the first step towards making all dentistry services free of charge.’
We have an NHS dental crisis in this country, and this ill thought through, measly proposal from Labour barely scratches the surface. All it does is highlight the Labour Party’s lack of understanding of the magnitude of the problem.
1. The biggest cause of general anaesthesia for children is having rotten teeth removed. Earlier intervention by dentists and better advice on oral care could prevent many of these extractions. Labour claims that parents are put off going to dentists by the cost, but all treatment and check-ups are already free for children, so cost can’t be the issue. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.
2. As Ashworth has said, people are resorting to ‘DIY dentistry’ to fix their toothache – such as pulling teeth out with pliers. But people with toothache will still have to pay for extractions even if the initial checkup is free. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.
3. Across large swathes of the country, people do not have local NHS dentists they can register with. Some have to travel up to 80 miles (round trip) to access an NHS dentist. Free checkups does not increase access. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.
At the core of the NHS dental crisis is the 2006 dental contract imposed by the then Labour government. It has encouraged large-scale purchases by US corporations of local dental practices, made it unattractive to dentists to work in the NHS with a pay reduction of 35 per cent and has destroyed morale.
In short: the biggest problem with NHS dentistry in this country is a lack of dentists willing to work in the NHS. The Labour Party’s policy announcement is a distraction from the deep-rooted, structural inequality of oral health in the UK. Why don’t we have a real discussion about oral health rather than glossing over it with meaningless soundbites?