How has the GDC acted during the COVID-19 pandemic?

gdc closed signSeb Evans looks back at the way the GDC has acted during the coronavirus lockdown.

When the UK entered lockdown towards the end of March, few would predict three months later we would only be beginning to reopen. The lockdown has caused widespread problems across all industries. But the financial worries and difficulties for those in dentistry has been particularly acute. Dental practices and team members have fallen between the cracks of government support. This has left practices teetering on the edge of survival as they look towards reopening.

During the lockdown many have said: ‘People will remember the way businesses behaved during this crisis.’ It was used to describe the way dental practices put patients’ needs first.

There are a few companies who might shock us by the way they’ve behaved during the crisis. But as practices start to welcome back patients I thought we’d take a closer look at the way the General Dental Council (GDC) has acted during the pandemic.

GDC relationship

The GDC has had a fractious relationship with the profession it regulates for the past few years. Increasing the annual retention fee (ARF) by 55% in 2015 was a particular low point. The years of refusing to drop its ARF and remain the most expensive healthcare regulator didn’t help. And the continued stories of heavy handed regulation and slow change have left a bitter taste in the mouth.

But just as there was a hint of change coming, the GDC completely undermined all its hard work during lockdown.

It all started out so well. The day after Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, the GDC encouraged remote learning during the crisis, whilst also hinting it would ‘take a flexible approach wherever possible’. It confirmed ‘dental professionals who finish the year with a shortfall in CPD hours will be looked on sympathetically’. Despite a track record of not being overly sympathetic, this suggested the regulator was at least thinking about the position dentists and dental professionals find themselves in.

ARF fiasco

The GDC’s next step was to highlight that there are ‘very real limits‘ on its ability to be flexible over ARF payments in light of the coronavirus crisis. Dentistry Online received reassurances that this didn’t necessarily mean there were going to be no ARF refunds. The GDC pointed to its limited financial reserves and reducing the ARF by 24% last year as things it needed to take into consideration. It also highlighted that registration fees were its only source of income. A month later the GDC confirmed it ‘will not make changes to ARF payments in response to the COVID-19 crisis.’

In summary – during the lockdown, most dentists were unable to practise dentistry and therefore had no need to be regulated. Despite this, the regulator insisted on charging them for these months.

To add insult to injury, earlier this month the regulator felt it necessary to tell dental care professionals that the renewal period for registration is now open! It reminds readers that the deadline for completion is 31 July. The GDC is obliged to communicate clearly with registrants that the renewal period is open. But is there at least an option to extend the deadline in the current climate?

Many registrants have not received a penny through dentistry over the past few months. Some have volunteered on the NHS frontline helping battle COVID-19. Others have had to take up jobs elsewhere to pay for their expenses. Practices are going out of business and others are on the brink. But the GDC reminds us that it doesn’t care. Registrants better fill up its coffers by the end of July.

Chair of the GDC, Dr William Moyes, said it was not a decision that was ‘taken lightly’ in the wake of the coronavirus. But the similar tones of the two statements makes you wonder whether the decision was made pretty early on.

‘Completely unreasonable’

‘They want their money. They’re going to be flexible on the CPD requirements – but they want their money,’ dentist, Henrik Overgaard-Nielsen, told Dentistry Online.

‘This is very typical of the GDC. It’s been a problem for dentists for a long time – removing people from the register for being one day late paying. It is very clear the only thing they’re interested in is the finances.

‘It’s completely unreasonable when everybody has been so affected by the current situation. There will be a number of nurses who were either sent home, furloughed and who might face financial difficulties.

‘In these circumstances, the least the GDC could do is to be a bit flexible with the DCPs. They don’t tend to be high earners, and other family members could also be furloughed or even made redundant.

‘I’m sure there are nurses out there that are really feeling the pinch. And it’s not the nurses’ fault. They should have financial support like everybody else.’

‘Shocking’ behaviour

The GDC’s lack of empathy during the whole pandemic is shocking to say the least. As companies across the UK pause direct debits and others do what they can to help, the GDC insists on getting its registration fees and holding onto them.

‘People will remember the way businesses behaved during this crisis.’ This can work both ways. We will remember everything companies did to help us in our time of need. Banks, mortgage providers and even the government, with its furlough scheme, did everything they could to help. I’m sure that will be repaid on the other side. But we’ll also remember the companies who stamp on us while we’re down. The GDC is definitely in the latter category.

GDC response

In response to the article, a spokesperson for the GDC told Dentistry Online: ‘We understand that many dental professionals are facing hard times at the moment.

‘As such, the decisions made by council in relation to the dental care professionals’ 2020 renewal were not reached easily or lightly.

‘But our regulatory work, which we are required in law to undertake, has not stopped throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

‘Our ability to continue this work must also be safeguarded. Therefore, while so much uncertainty remains, council remains confident these were the decisions they needed to make.’

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