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Leading article: Open wide

For a government to botch one set of contract negotiations with National Health Service workers, as this government did with general practitioners, might be seen as unfortunate. To do it a second time, this time with dentists, begins to look like incompetence.

Yet that is the scathing verdict delivered today by the Commons Health Select Committee. The committee argues that the new NHS contract for dentists, implemented two years ago, has failed to improve services for patients because, under the new treatment pricing system, dentists have no financial incentive to treat complex cases.

The reform has also failed to increase the number of people getting NHS dental treatment. Figures released last month showed that a million fewer people are now seeing an NHS dentist than before the contract was negotiated.

We should, of course, recognise that sorting out dentistry in this country was always going to be the political equivalent of root-canal surgery, rather than a simple filling. The British, for some inexplicable reason, have always tended to place a lower priority on looking after their teeth than their general health. The infrastructure and culture of regular check-up visits to the dentist simply does not exist. But the Government certainly did not do itself any favours by failing to put the new system out to trial before implementing it.

It is hardly an attractive proposition, but if we are to see more people getting better treatment for their teeth, health ministers are going to have to persuade the patient to open wide and say "ahhh" once again.