Dentists say Blair's 'NHS for all' pledge is impossible

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Tony Blair's promise to give everyone access to an NHS dentist will not be met, the British Dental Association said yesterday. The chairman of its executive board, Dr John Renshaw, said that insufficient funding meant the target was "impossible" to achieve.

Tony Blair's promise to give everyone access to an NHS dentist will not be met, the British Dental Association said yesterday. The chairman of its executive board, Dr John Renshaw, said that insufficient funding meant the target was "impossible" to achieve.

The Prime Minister told last year's Labour Party conference, to thunderous applause, that by September 2001 anyone who rang the NHS Direct helpline with a dental problem would be referred to the nearest surgery offering treatment on the health service.

But the recent NHS National Plan made clear that funding for dentistry would be restricted to £25m - £20m of which had already been announced.

Dr Renshaw said: "We would like to think that good-quality dental services should be available on the NHS. The Prime Minister says he wants it but we are the ones who have to provide it. Without the right funding we are not going to be able to do it.

"At the moment they are giving us almost nothing compared to what is going into the rest of the health service and we don't see it as a reasonable distribution.

"The Prime Minister went and shot his mouth off without speaking to us. He didn't ask us whether we could deliver on the promise he was making. The target is very, very difficult but with the timescale it makes it impossible."

There has been a steady decline in the number of dentists offering treatment on the NHS, which has left people in some places with no realistic alternative to going private.

About five years ago, the BDA said, 32 million patients were registered with NHS dentists. Now, said Dr Renshaw, that figure had fallen to 28 million, leaving a shortfall of four million patients - but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

There was a "gigantic gap" to bridge before everyone in the UK wanting access to an NHS dentist could get it.

The money set aside for dentistry amounted to just £1,000 per practice per year - a sum dismissed by Dr Renshaw as "small potatoes".

He estimated that around £400,000 extra over the next four years was needed to achieve the Prime Minister's aim and ensure that quality and standards in NHS dentistry were kept up.

That would be an equivalent percentage increase - 6.3 - to the amount awarded under the NHS National Plan to the rest of the health service.

Dr Renshaw said: "What they are offering is peanuts which is not going to go anywhere near the problem."

The BDA believes that all the dentists who have left the NHS, or have only tiny numbers of non-paying patients, need to be attracted back to the public sector.

"I don't believe that the Government has any intention of even trying," Dr Renshaw went on. He said the profession was now extremely frustrated by the combination of demands for improvements and no proper funding, claiming that dentistry in the NHS had for years suffered from shortages of staff and persistent low levels of government investment.

He concluded: "We have had enough of talk. We are sick of it. We are fed up with listening to the talk. We need some action - and action means money."

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