However, the depth of the crisis was revealed by government figures showing that there are only 55 National Health Service dentists, salaried by the Government, who are unaffected by the dispute.
Salaried dentists will be required to treat NHS patients if Britain's 18,000 general dental practitioners vote next week to restrict or abandon their NHS work in protest at a 7 per cent fee cut. Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, has authorised the appointment of more salaried dentists.
However, there are only 55, of whom 29 are in south-east London. Liverpool has only two. There is one each for Derbyshire and Cornwall. Several counties have no salaried dentists. Only 47 have been recruited in the last three years.
In a parliamentary answer, Dr Mawhinney also revealed that the pay of such dentists varied between pounds 18,755 and pounds 27,305 a year, well below the pounds 35,000 target salary for general dental practitioners. The figures support claims that salaried dentistry is not attractive to most practitioners and would be unable to carry the burden if there was a mass defection from the NHS.
Joe Rich, chairman of the General Dental Services Committee, said: 'Most general dental practitioners do not want to work as salaried dentists. Perhaps the Government will have to recruit in central Africa or the Far East or Yugoslavia. Whatever the Government does, the public is not going to enjoy the standard of service it has now. It must also be clear to anyone that a dentist who is on a fixed salary is not going to push himself in the way that a general dental practitioner does. The Government will find that it needs to pay three salaried dentists to do the work of one general dental practitioner.'
Earlier, Mr Rich had led a delegation of dentists to meet Dr Mawhinney. They discussed the creation of a review body to carry out a fundamental reappraisal of dentists' salaries. Government sources described the meeting, held at the request of ministers, as 'constructive'.
Ministers hope that the firm commitment to set up the review body will help to find a way out of the dispute over next week's fee cut. The meeting discussed candidates for the chairmanship and members of the pay review body.
Ministers hope that the willingness of the dentists to discuss their pay dispute augurs warmer relations between the two sides.
Mr Rich said: 'Both sides made protestations of a determination to seek a way forward with agreement on both sides. But this meeting was tackling the long-term problem, not the immediate issue of the fee cut.'
Dr Mawhinney is considering the names of possible members of the review body suggested by the dentists' side. However, it is unlikely the review body will be formed in time to make recommendations for next year's pay settlement. Its chairman is expected to be a lawyer or business figure.Reuse content