NHS dental recovery plan: Millions more dental appointments to be offered

07 February 2024

Published on February 7, 2024, by the NHS and the government, the NHS Dental Recovery Plan could see up to 2.5m additional appointments delivered to patients over the next 12 months. Up to 1.5m extra treatments could be delivered.

Under the plans, supported by £200m of government funding, NHS dentists will be given a ‘new patient’ payment of between £15-£50 (depending on treatment need) to treat around a million new patients who have not seen an NHS dentist in two years or more.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, said, “NHS dentistry was hit hard by the pandemic, and while services are improving – with 23 per cent more treatments delivered last year compared to the previous year – we know that for too many people, accessing a dentist isn’t as easy as it should be.

“That’s why we’re taking action today to boost the number of NHS dentists, help cut waiting lists and put NHS dentistry on a sustainable footing for the long term. Backed by £200m, this new recovery plan will deliver millions more NHS dental appointments and provide easier and faster access to care for people right across the country.”

The plan sets out how the NHS and government will drive a major new focus on prevention and good oral health in young children and deliver an expanded dental workforce.

The plan will also see the government roll out a new ‘Smile For Life’ programme, which will see parents and parents-to-be offered advice for baby gums and milk teeth, with the aim that by the time children go to school, every child will see tooth brushing as a normal part of their day.

To attract new NHS dentists and improve access to care in areas with the highest demand, around 240 dentists will be offered one-off payments of up to £20,000 for working in under-served areas for up to three years.

Jason Wong, interim chief dental officer for England, said, “Two years ago, the NHS implemented the first reforms to dentistry in 16 years, and this plan will now build on that work to ensure that one and a half million additional dental treatments will be offered to patients next year.

“Good oral health remains essential for good general health, and this package of measures will ensure more patients can access NHS dental services while better supporting dental teams across the country to provide high-quality care.”

The public will also be able to see which practices in their local area are accepting new patients on the NHS website and the NHS App. To promote the increased availability of appointments, the government will also roll out a marketing campaign encouraging anyone who has not been seen by a dentist for the past two years to access treatment.

NHS work will also be more attractive to dental teams, with the minimum activity value increasing to £28 (from £23).

New ways of delivering care in rural and coastal areas will also be rolled out, including launching ‘dental vans’ to help reach the most isolated communities.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said, “Covid-19 has significantly impacted NHS dental care, and teams across the country are working hard to recover services and meet rising demand.

“Building on the reforms we have already implemented, the health service will now introduce a wide range of practical measures to help make it easier for people to see a dentist, from incentivising dentists to take on new patients to supporting dentists to be part of the NHS in areas where access is challenging.

“Recovering dentistry is a priority for the NHS, and this plan is a significant step towards transforming NHS dental services for the better.”

In addition, for the first time ever, a water fluoridation programme will be rolled out by government, which could reduce the number of tooth extractions due to decay in the most deprived areas of the country. Subject to consultation, the programme would enable an additional 1.6m people to benefit from water fluoridation, first expanding across the North East.

The health service will build a pipeline of new dentists and other dental care professionals, including increasing dental training places by up to 40 per cent by 2031/32, as part of the 'NHS Long Term Workforce Plan'.

The plan, published today, also includes new measures to attract dentists to work in the NHS, including supporting more graduate dentists to work in NHS care. The government will consult on whether dentists should be required to work in the NHS for a period upon completion of their training.

Victoria Atkins, the health and social care secretary, said, “Dentistry is a priority for this government. I know from my experience representing a rural and coastal constituency in Lincolnshire how frustrating it is for people who cannot get a dentist appointment, especially after the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on dentistry. We have seen big improvements over the past year, but now we are going much further.

“I’m determined to deliver faster, simpler and fairer access to NHS dentistry for patients – and this plan will help anyone who has not been able to see a dentist in the past two years to do so.”

“The long-term decisions we are taking will help ensure that good oral health is available to all, wherever you live and whatever your background.”

Andrea Leadsom, primary care minister, said, “Good oral hygiene and daily toothbrushing are vital to give every child a great smile for life.

“This plan will ensure that healthy teeth and gums are available to everyone.”

Neil Carmichael, executive chair of the Association of Dental Groups, said, “We welcome these additional incremental changes to the NHS contract, noting the additional £200m allocated for the year ahead. The package rightly acknowledges improving access for high need patients as a priority and signals a focus on children through family hubs and dental teams supporting children at school. We look forward to engaging fully in the wider consultation on longer-term contract reform.”

Louise Ansari, Healthwatch England chief executive, said, “Across England, we have seen major access issues in NHS dentistry. The rising cost of living has had a real impact, with our latest data showing that one in five people have avoided going to the dentist because they can’t afford it. A year ago, this figure was one in ten.

“The dentistry recovery plan is a good start in addressing these serious problems. To widen access to NHS dentistry to those experiencing the greatest health inequalities, it’s vital dentists take up the new premium payments, promote availability of appointments to new patients and prioritise slots to people most in need.

“We also welcome the move to incentivise dentists to work in ‘dental deserts’ with golden hellos, to use dental vans in remote areas and to roll out more prevention schemes for children.

“However, in the long run more radical solutions are needed to get NHS dentistry back on track. We welcome the government’s commitment to consulting with the profession on the contract and urge this to happen as soon as possible.”

Charlotte Eckhardt, dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said, “The nation’s oral health, and particularly that of children, is not in a great way and we know that this is due in part to problems accessing NHS dentists. NHS England’s plan and the funding behind it should go some way to tackling the growing inequalities in oral health and the current crisis of access.

“As dental surgeons who deal with some of the most severe problems, we are pleased to see measures in the plan that will help reduce tooth decay, including the roll-out of a new ‘Smile for Life’ programme to offer families advice for baby gums and milk teeth, the potential introduction of a water fluoridation programme across the North East, and dental vans to reach underserved communities.

“It is also good to see efforts to make NHS dental work more attractive to dental teams and plans to attract more NHS dentists. However, it will take some time to recruit the number of NHS dentists we really need. Therefore, getting the message on prevention out there is key. Good oral hygiene starts with regularly brushing teeth with fluoride toothpaste, visiting the dentist, and cutting down on the sugary foods that can lead to decay.”

Bas Vorsteveld, Haleon vice president and general manager of Great Britain and Ireland, said, “Across the country, we know that dentistry is under pressure, and this is having a major impact on the oral health of the nation. Latest figures show that one in five people have avoided visiting the dentist due to cost, more than double the same time last year. Today’s news of the UK Government’s 'NHS Dental Recovery Plan' marks an important moment in attempts to reverse that trend and build a more inclusive and accessible NHS dental service.

“At Haleon, we know that to truly tackle the major crises we face in the UK’s oral health we need to redouble our efforts on prevention. I’m pleased to see some steps in the recovery plan, such as the new ‘Smile for Life’ programme, which aims to tackle that. As a company we have extensive experience in this area, with our Aquafresh Shine Bright Academy, reaching kids in schools and showing them the benefits of better oral health. Focusing here is the way to sustainably improve oral health in the country and move pressure off oral health professionals.

“We also know that many oral health professionals are struggling to offer preventative advice due to short appointment times and lack of access to easy-to-share information. In fact, our recent ‘Dental Health Barometer’ found that just one-third of oral health professionals said they always offer preventative care advice to patients. With this in mind, the industry needs to work together to provide preventative care advice at different touch points – beyond the dental chair. This will ensure preventative advice is accessible to all and help encourage long-term oral health across the UK.

“We at Haleon are proud to continue to provide support and resources to dental health professionals in the UK. Although the impacts of the funding and initiatives may take some time to be felt, these are steps in the right direction with a long-term view. We are looking forward to seeing the rollout of the new 'NHS Dental Health Recovery Plan' and further steps needed to improve the oral health of the nation.”

Catherine Rutland, dentist and clinical director at Denplan, said, “The state of dentistry in Britain and scale of dental deserts has been a growing issue over the last few years. The initiatives suggested in today’s dental recovery plan offer a glimpse of hope for the future – but only if introduced as part of wider policy changes. 

“We can’t offer dentists more money for NHS patients while ignoring essential reforms to the dental contract so they can better treat the patients they have. The ability to offer a mixed NHS and private model would enable better support for both patients and professionals. 

“Commitment to teach nursery pupils to avoid tooth decay is important to embed those early habits. However, we must also consider how we support parents with wider oral health habits, including dietary considerations, education and regular dental visits.

“This is a promising first step, but more needs to be done – for our children, society, and our dental teams, many of whom are mentally and financially affected by the challenges facing the sector.”