Rural dentists set for Budget boost to improve Tory poll prospects

The number of people per dentist has risen since 2019 in most parts of England, with rural services more stretched
The number of people per dentist has risen since 2019 in most parts of England, with rural services more stretched - Peter Cade/Getty Images

A major funding increase for rural dental practices is expected to be unveiled in the Spring Budget after Tory MPs pressed the Government for more investment.

The Telegraph understands that Downing Street is drawing up new plans after accepting that long dental waiting lists could be used against them by Labour and the Liberal Democrats before the general election.

Figures last year showed that the number of people per dentist has risen since 2019 in most parts of England.

The Liberal Democrats have warned that “dental deserts” have emerged, a problem exacerbated by backlogs from the Covid pandemic.

Conservative MPs have privately pushed No 10 to provide more funding, arguing that the difficulty in getting dental appointments is often mentioned by constituents.

The exact amount of extra investment has not been decided, though it is likely to be hundreds of millions of pounds. And the Government is still to decide how that money would be distributed.

Rishi Sunak has previously said he wants to look at the trend of dentists going private after being trained at taxpayer expense in the NHS.

While there are still six weeks until the March 6 Budget, it is understood rural dental practices will be the focus of the financial support, according to a Whitehall insider familiar with the policy development.

Dental practices are more stretched in the countryside compared with urban areas, according to a number of indicators.

Six in 10 areas in England have seen the number of people per dentist rise since 2019, according to House of Commons Library research commissioned by the Lib Dems last year.

Worst affected areas

Rural constituencies dominated the list of the ten areas with the worst person-to-dentist ratios.

North Lincolnshire had the worst figures with, on average, 3,199 people per dentist, followed by East Riding of Yorkshire, North East Lincolnshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Waveney, Ipswich and East Suffolk, Northamptonshire, Thurrock, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, and Gloucestershire.

Many Conservative MPs in rural constituencies are facing tough re-election battles against the Lib Dems.

Concerns from Tories about problems in dental services emerged during a Westminster Hall debate on the topic in February 2022.

Peter Aldous, the Tory MP for Waveney in Suffolk who led the debate, said: “NHS dentistry has been the number one issue in my inbox for the past nine to 10 months. This is a national crisis, though the problem in my constituency - in Lowestoft and Waveney - is acute.

“Dentists have retired, which has led to resources and dental capacity being taken away from the area, notwithstanding the increased need and demand following the pandemic.

“Many of the remaining practices are experiencing difficulties in recruiting and retaining dentists, and the situation has been exacerbated by a lack of funding, with net Government spending on general dental practice being reduced by a third over the past decade.”

Dame Maria Miller, the Tory MP for Basingstoke in Hampshire, said: “We have significantly fewer dentists per head than Germany and France. I welcome the work that the Government are doing on that but we need more.”

Selaine Saxby, the Tory MP for North Devon, said: “I am all too aware of the issues surrounding the availability of dentists in North Devon.

“I could not find an NHS dentist when I moved there in 2017. I continued to travel back to my previous dentist in Wiltshire for 18 months until I was lucky enough to find one.”

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