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Why we’re fighting for an NHS dentist for everyone

TOOTHLESS in Suffolk is the campaign group that’s calling for full access to local NHS dental treatment — its strapline is “An NHS dentist for everyone.” 

The campaign started up in Leiston, a rural town in Suffolk of 5,000 or so residents who found themselves without a single dental practice. It was my friend and fellow Communist Party comrade, Steve Marsling, who alerted me to the problem.

Up until 18 months ago, there were two dental surgeries in Leiston providing NHS treatment. 

The Bupa practice, which had been operating with just one dentist working part time, finally closed its doors and returned its contract back in March 2020, citing difficulties in recruiting dentists to the area. 

The second practice, operated by another corporate giant MyDentist, closed in April 2021. Rising operational costs and failing to attract new dentists to the area lead to their ultimate demise.

These closures have impacted heavily on the town and surrounding villages. Patients have found it impossible to get on the books or even get emergency treatment from other NHS practices, often being forced to travel as far as Chelmsford in Essex — a round trip of 136 miles, taking well over three hours to complete by car.

I thought to myself: “If it’s happening here in Leiston, it must be happening elsewhere too.” 

It was. Felixstowe, where I live, is a town that’s constantly growing and a quick ring-around the town’s four dental surgeries revealed that none of them were accepting new patients on the NHS. 

What hope do families choosing to settle in the area have of getting the basic treatment we’re all entitled to?

NHS Choices is where every practice that you call but can’t get an appointment advises you to look up. The website supposedly offers current listings of dentists offering NHS treatment. The reality is that they are not taking in new patients or close by.

Armed with all this information, we decided to launch the Toothless in Suffolk campaign, setting up a Facebook group, a Twitter account, and an online petition. 

Steve quickly organised and ran a street stall outside the Co-op in Leiston where the public could sign the petition in person. Within minutes of setting up, we were bombarded with stories that would make your heart sink with despair.

We learned that people were pulling out their own teeth, overdoing it with painkillers, telling us about the onset of depression because they cannot find a dentist, families with young children who haven’t seen a dentist in years, but if you had the money to go private, you could get treatment straight away.

Since its formation in May this year, the group has grown quickly with people joining from every corner of the county of Suffolk. Businesses have asked for petition forms for their customers to sign and requested posters for their shop windows. Street stalls in Felixstowe, Bury St Edmunds and Leiston have galvanised locals to support the campaign.

We have well over 5,000 signatures to the petition from people who have found themselves unable to access NHS treatment because of dental practice closures, practices being oversubscribed or practices returning NHS dental contracts that have turned out to be unviable, all of this has been exacerbated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The campaign team, which includes a former NHS dentist, met the East of England NHS commissioners recently, and quickly took them to task over their slow response to a crisis faced by many thousands of residents across Suffolk. 

The commissioners told us that they have invited applicants to take up new contracts with the NHS. We told them that the new contracts being offered do not go far enough in terms of financial viability for a new practice, or in terms of addressing the very real and widespread need for locally accessible NHS dentistry. 

They also had no answers for how they were going to fill the backlog of treatment and cases that have built up because of local practice closures, nor would they expedite the new contract offering procurement process — a process which would only see a new dental practice being set up as late as July 2022.  

We have also called on both the NHS commissioners and local councils to address the immediate dental health needs of Suffolk residents and procure the services of charities able to provide free dental treatment through their mobile clinics.

You will hear a lot about practices in rural areas not being able to attract dentists. But there is no shortage of qualified dentists. 

What there is a shortage of is an NHS contract that provides a sustainable and financially viable offering to new and existing practices, sufficiently attractive enough to draw them back to serve the more rural parts of the country.

The NHS contract system adopted in 2006 has just driven dentists away from providing NHS services. The contract emphasises activity over prevention, so much so that it has turned NHS provision into a numbers game.

Such are the appalling conditions of the NHS contract that practices are financially penalised for not seeing enough patients. The clawback clause, something which hasn’t been relaxed during the pandemic, has resulted in surgeries closing and NHS dentists retiring early through stress. 

Because the contracts are so target-driven, the levels of care the public are being offered is not what they were prior to 2006. When contracts are put out for tender, it’s the multinational conglomerates using their huge wealth and legal resources that invariably win the contract.

Dentistry is in the front ranks of what a privatised health system looks like, and it is ugly as sin.

Publicity for our campaign has been generated though the public sharing their testimony of hardship on our social media platforms, and this has accelerated news media interest to the extent that we are regularly featured on regional and national television and radio, and in numerous newsprint outlets.

And the campaign’s long-term future? We will continue with our street stalls and public meetings have been scheduled. We are meeting with the East of England NHS commissioners again in early November. 

And plans are afoot to expand the campaign to a national level as we are regularly contacted by people from all over England — Kent, Sussex, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Devon, and Cornwall — all offering their support and telling us the same is happening where they live.

If people want to get involved by starting up a campaign in their area, we can help — all the artwork ready and waiting, along with as much advice as is needed. Just get in contact with us, we’d be more than happy to help.

Yesterday’s march and rally in Bury St Edmunds has shown the appetite within local communities for immediate solutions, calling for commissioners and government to recognise the dire situation that many have found themselves in through no fault of their own.

We have the public, we have dentistry professionals, we have professional organisations such as the BDA, unions and trades councils, and the weight of the news media all behind us, and we are absolutely determined to carry on with the fight until our goal is achieved — “An NHS dentist for everyone.”

Mark Jones is campaign co-ordinator of Toothless in Suffolk.