In response to the latest figures from the BBC on the exodus of dentists from the NHS, the British Dental Association has underlined the need for urgent reform for a service that is in crisis long before COVID struck.

The union has said new figures – which suggest losses equivalent to 8% of the NHS workforce – are just the tip of the iceberg, with the pandemic merely speeding a process already in motion driven by years of underfunding and failed contracts.

Since 2006 the profession has worked to a target based system dubbed unfit for purpose by the Health Select Committee.

Leaders stress that NHS dentists who have never contemplated working outside the system are now looking to the exit. BDA Survey data from December revealed over 40% of dentists indicate they are now likely to change career or seek early retirement in the next 12 months given the current pressures on the service.

Over half stated they are likely to reduce their NHS commitment. 1 in 10 estimated their practices will close in the next 12 months.

In the face of the Omicron Wave, the government has imposed a target of 85% of pre-COVID activity that many practices are struggling to hit in the face of staff sickness and patient cancellations. Those that fail to do so will face significant financial penalties.

Over 38 million appointments have been lost since lockdown as a result of strict infection control protocols, and the resulting backlog will take years to clear.

Despite calls by the BDA, Healthwatch England and a growing number of MPs not one penny of the government’s multi-billion pound catch-up programme has been allocated to dentistry, to underpin the recovery and rebuild of services.

Shawn Charlwood, Chair of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee said:

“It’s clear that NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread. Every practice struggling to fill vacancies translates into thousands of patients unable to access care.

“Years of failed contracts and underfunding have meant a growing number of dentists no longer see the NHS as a place to build a career. The pandemic has upped the ante, and we are now facing down an exodus.

“Ministers have failed to grasp that we can’t have NHS dentistry without NHS dentists. Rather than punishing colleagues, we need a service that recognises and rewards commitment.

“Millions stand to lose out if the government fail to deliver needed reform.”