More than 1,800 dentists have left the NHS since 1992, the British Dental Association said yesterday.

More than 1,800 dentists have left the NHS since 1992, the British Dental Association said yesterday.

This is the first time a figure has been put on the decline of NHS dentistry over the past decade. Since 1992, the number of adults registered with an NHS dentist has fallen by one-fifth, from 24.4 million to 19.7 million, as dentists have opted to treat patients privately for higher fees.

Surveys by the British Dental Association show that until the early 1990s, dentists earned between 5 and 8 per cent of their income from private work, but by 1998 that had risen to 25 per cent. One adult in four is now treated privately, the association estimates.

In evidence to the dentists' pay review body, published yesterday, the association calls for an 8 per cent pay rise for dentists to stem the shift to the private sector. A survey found that six out of 10 dentists said they did not believe that the Government wanted dentistry in the NHS in the long term.

Dr John Renshaw, chairman of the association's executive board, said: "The two diseases dentists treat routinely - tooth decay and gum disease - still affect more of the population than any other condition. Despite this, many dentists believe the Government does not value dentistry. The Government needs to treat oral health as an integral part of health care. If they don't, dentists will continue to leave the NHS and move into the private sector."

The association warned that the shortage of dentists would threaten the Government's guarantee last month that all patients would have access to an NHS dentist by September 2001. Ministers announced a £100m plan to modernise NHS surgeries and reward dentists who commit to the NHS.

The decline in NHS dentistry began more than a decade ago as rising charges for treatment accustomed patients to paying for dental care. It accelerated in 1992 when the Tory government cut dentists' fees, triggering the rush to the private sector. NHS dentists are hardest to find in parts of London and the South.

The association complained that there was "nothing very new" in the Government's strategy for rebuilding NHS dentistry, and said that the £100m sum was inadequate. They said that an extra £100m was needed every year for the next five years.

"What appears to be missing from the strategy is any attempt to arrest the flow of practitioners out of the NHS and into the private sector. It is this loss that lies at the heart of the problem," the association said.