Jeremy Hunt has been told that any cuts to the health budget will in effect “kill” dental services across the UK and deny millions of patients access to a dentist on the NHS.
The chancellor has told members of the cabinet that “everything is on the table” as he seeks to find tens of billions of pounds in savings after ditching the economic plan of Liz Truss, who said on Thursday she was standing down as prime minister. Health is one key area expected to be hit.
But in an email to Hunt seen by the Guardian, the head of the British Dental Association said in plain terms that because NHS dentistry had already “faced cuts with no parallel anywhere in the health service” over the last decade, any further reduction in funding could trigger its collapse.
“In blunt terms, NHS dentistry is approaching the end of the road,” Martin Woodrow, the BDA chief executive, wrote in the memo. “There is simply no more fat to trim, short of denying access to an even greater proportion of the population.”
The number of “dental deserts” is growing across the UK, according to a recent analysis. The Local Government Association highlighted figures showing a lack of NHS dentists in several parts of the country, with deprived and rural areas having fewer dentists than richer and urban areas.
The Guardian has previously reported on how some patients have turned to DIY dentistry after being unable to access care.
In the memo to Hunt, Woodrow wrote: “Recent NHS England board papers confirm officials are euphemistically ‘taking steps to maximise access from existing resources’. We know what that means. Yes, we recognise the unparalleled pressures on public spending. Equally, we cannot escape the hard fact that a service millions depend on materially lacks the resources to underpin any rebuild.
“You have also spoken of the need for all departments to seek ‘efficiency savings’. Since the financial crash, NHS dentistry has faced cuts with no parallel anywhere in the health service, going into the pandemic with lower government contributions – in cash terms – than it saw a decade ago.
“As we have told your predecessors, it would take an extra £880m a year simply to restore levels of resource to those we saw in 2010.”
Woodrow added: “We never imagined we would need to defend the wholly inadequate resources currently offered to us. But it seems we must. However, the stark reality remains that sustainable investment is urgently required if we are going to bring this service back from the brink.”
In a reference to Hunt’s previous position as chair of the House of Commons health and social care select committee, Woodrow said: “In your former role, we believe you recognised the scale of this crisis. NHS dentistry is already on the critical list. Any further cuts will kill the patient.”
The LGA analysis of data, published this month, showed no local authority area in the country had more than one dentist providing NHS treatment per 1,000 people.
The data for July to September this year showed that Ashfield in Nottinghamshire had the lowest ratio, at 0.062 dentists per 1,000 people.
Selby in North Yorkshire was next lowest, at 0.065, followed by Tamworth in Staffordshire (0.065), Mid Suffolk (0.067), Rochford in Essex (0.068), Ryedale in North Yorkshire (0.072), Bolsover in Derbyshire (0.074), Chelmsford in Essex (0.078), East Cambridgeshire (0.078) and South Derbyshire (0.082).
The best-served areas are Surrey Heath (0.224), Barnet in London (0.228), Richmond upon Thames (0.257), Elmbridge in Surrey (0.262), Camden (0.279), Hammersmith and Fulham (0.316), Kensington and Chelsea (0.325) and Westminster (0.374).
The Guardian has contacted the Treasury for comment.