Paul Bristow is the MP for Peterborough and a member of the Commons’ Health and Social Care Select Committee.
As we prepare to leave the European Union on January 31, the UK is forging new bilateral relationships and turning towards our long time Commonwealth allies. As we do so, we will gain the flexibility to solve many of our national challenges, both big and small, as a part of the global community. One such challenge is improving access to dentistry.
Across Britain, NHS dentist numbers are falling. My own constituency is no exception, with Peterborough seeing a decline of 2.5 per cent in NHS dentists from 2018/19 to 2019/20. In other areas the latest figures show dentist numbers dropping more dramatically, and it is local people who are paying the price. A recent report found that Plymouth had 14,000 patients, including 3,000 children, on a growing waiting list for dental care.
Covid-19 has made it even harder for many people to get access to the dentist, with the Association of Dental Groups finding that less patients are being seen and some of the most vulnerable groups are being hit hardest.
But even before the pandemic struck, many parts of the country were already seeing rising oral health problems due to the shortage of dentists. Last year new cases of mouth cancer increased by ten per cent in the UK and hospitals in England carried out an average 177 operations a day on children and teenagers last year to remove rotting teeth, costing the NHS more than £40m.
To ensure that people can get the treatment they need, we need to attract and train more people here in the UK to become dentists. But this is not a short-term fix. Currently training takes five years to complete and Covid has further complicated matters for dental students. With Covid-19 exacerbating the existing crisis in access to dentistry, we need to act immediately.
Brexit presents an opportunity to turn the situation around now by attracting outstanding clinicians from around the world. As we build relationships with potential trading partners outside of Europe, we should look at making it easier for overseas professionals to enter UK dentistry.
For example, India is one of a number of Commonwealth countries with outstanding dental schools. The country trains more than 30,000 dentists per year. This had led to an over-supply of skilled dentists in India and significant demand for British qualifications. Once the UK has left the European Union, we could assess and mutually recognise those schools that meet our standards. If just ten per cent of the dentists trained every year in India were recruited to work in NHS dentistry in the UK, the current severe problem of access would be dramatically reduced.
At present, there are too many obstacles standing in the way of skilled dentists who wish to come here from overseas. On average, over the last year, it has taken 199 days to recruit an EU dentist into the NHS, despite current mutual recognition. For candidates who qualify in the Rest of the World, the system is deeply complex and can take considerably longer.
Now is time for the system to be simplified and hurdles removed. In the summer, the Government announced a new health and social care visa to attract the best overseas professionals to work for the NHS. Over the next few months we could build on this by making it easier for skilled dentists and dental therapists from overseas with an offer of a contract to start work for the Health Service in the UK. The General Dental Council is also being urged to look at how to reform the Overseas Registration Exam and recognise the qualifications of dental schools meeting UK standards in territories outside of the European Economic Area.
Making it easier for the NHS to recruit skilled clinicians from overseas in this way will improve patient access to vital NHS dentistry, particularly in more deprived parts of the country where oral health outcomes are being hardest hit. It will also help us take advantage of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union by creating closer relationships with Commonwealth countries. It would be good for global Britain and good for communities across the UK, from Plymouth to Peterborough.