There has been a drop in the number of dentists working in the NHS in England, new figures suggest.
Data obtained by the British Dental Association (BDA) shows 23,577 dentists performed NHS work in the 2022/23 financial year, down from 24,272 the previous year.
The last time these figures fell below 24,000 (apart from during the Covid pandemic) was in 2014/15, the data suggests.
The most recent year’s findings were obtained by the BDA from the NHS Business Services Authority using Freedom of Information laws.
The BDA said the Government should now “drop any pretence that NHS dentistry is on the road to recovery and finally deliver a meaningful rescue package”.
It argues that the new data is at odds with repeated claims from the Prime Minister, ministers and officials that recent reforms have boosted dentist numbers.
According to the BDA, dental practices are struggling to fill dentist vacancies, which means they face fines for not hitting their NHS contractual targets.
It estimates that practices will have to pay back more than £400 million for not hitting targets this year.
It wants to see a new higher minimum Unit of Dental Activity (UDA) value, which it says could help stop dentists having to treat NHS patients at a loss.
“A minimum UDA level of £23 was rolled out in October, lower than the current patient charge level of £25.80, and below the level required for most practices to cover their costs or attract new dentists,” it said.
Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the BDA’s general dental practice committee, added: “Government needs to drop the spin, accept the facts and provide a rescue package to keep this service afloat.
“NHS dentistry is haemorrhaging talent, and further tweaks to a broken system will not stem the flow.
“The PM once called for this budget to be ring-fenced. We face an access crisis, and with hundreds of millions set to be pulled away funds must be put to work solving these problems.
“Ministers have a choice. They can help thousands of struggling practices fill vacancies and see patients, or just pass by on the other side.”
A recent BDA survey of dentists in England showed half of dentists (50%) had reduced the proportion of NHS work they do since the start of the pandemic, by more than a quarter.
Some 74% indicated that they planned to reduce, or further reduce, the amount of NHS work they undertake in the year ahead.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said: “The Conservative Government have driven our dental service into the ground, driving dentists away from the NHS work they want to take on, whacking up charges for patients when people are struggling to pay the bills, and now we learn that the number of NHS dentists is falling.
“There are now swathes of dental deserts across the country where finding an NHS dental appointment is rarer than finding a unicorn.
“We need urgent reform. The Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to stop faffing about with one-off schemes and minor tweaks.
“They must urgently reform this broken system that has driven dentists away from the NHS and invest the cash earmarked for NHS dentistry that has scandalously gone unspent.”