General election 2024: what has each party promised for dentistry?

With a general election just around the corner, Dentistry looks at what each party has said about dentistry so far.

Last month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that a general election will take place on Thursday 4 July. As the country gears up for polling day, both the public and the dental profession will be following the promises being made regarding the future of NHS dentistry.

This comes as a recent Yougov survey suggested that NHS dentistry is a top concern for voters. The survey also indicated that dentistry is currently the least accessible NHS service, with nearly a third (28%) of respondents saying it’s the most important issue facing their local area.

As a result, some 80% believe the government should be doing more to improve NHS dentistry.

Another survey found that 96% of dental professionals want to see parties pledge support for the health and wellbeing of the dental workforce.

Carried out by the Dental Defence Union (DDU), the survey also found that 80% of the profession feel negative about the future of the NHS.

With this in mind and as the political parties continue to make pledges and publish their manifestos, we take a look at what has been promised so far:

Conservative Party

Recovery plan

Prior to Sunak’s general election announcement, the Conservative Party released its NHS dentistry recovery plan in February.

The government claimed that its proposed measures would generate 2.5 million additional NHS dental appointments and deliver 1.5 million extra treatments.

Sunak said: ‘Backed by £200 million, this new recovery plan will deliver millions more NHS dental appointments and provide easier and faster access to care for people right across the country.’

The proposed measures included:

  • NHS dentists given a ‘new patient’ payment of between £15 to £50 to treat around a million new patients who have not seen an NHS dentist in two years or more
  • Around 240 dentists offered one-off payments of up to £20,000 for working in under-served areas for up to three years
  • ‘Smile for Life’ initiative, offering advice to parents and parents-to-be on oral care for baby gums and milk teeth
  • Minimum NHS activity value rising from £23 to £28
  • ‘Dental vans’ in rural areas to reach isolated communities
  • A water fluoridation programme.

However, when minister Andrea Leadsom was asked how the recovery plan would generate millions more appointments, she responded: ‘…it’s a complicated set of factors…with quite a high likelihood of not being reliable’.

In addition, the plan received widespread criticism from the dental profession, including the British Dental Association (BDA) declaring it as ‘unworthy of the title’.

Contract changes

As well as its NHS dentistry recovery plan, the 2024 Conservative manifesto also stated the party would make reforms to the NHS dental contract to ‘ensure its future sustainability’.

Eddie Crouch, BDA chair, said: ‘Fixing a failed contract is the litmus test for any party serious about saving NHS dentistry. This manifesto leaves dentists with no sense if the Conservatives are offering change or more tweaks at the margins.

‘Reheating the contents of a lacklustre recovery plan will not give this service a future.’

Labour Party

Rescue Plan

In its manifesto, the Labour Party pledged to enforce a new Dentistry Rescue Plan, stating that getting an NHS dentist is becoming ‘a lottery’ in the UK.

The new plan will tackle the NHS dentistry crisis by providing 700,000 new urgent dental appointments and recruiting new dentists to the areas most in need.

In addition, it has promised to reform the NHS dental contract in order to ‘rebuild dentistry for the long term’. This would focus on prevention and retaining NHS dentists.

‘Labour has pledged to start the ball rolling on fundamental reform of NHS dentistry,’ the BDA said in response. ‘Other manifesto commitments might take the edge off the crisis millions now face. But only one can end it, and that’s a decent contract, properly funded.’

As announced back in January this year, the manifesto also promises to implement a supervised toothbrushing scheme for three- to five-year-olds in specific areas.

‘If we let children grow up overweight, with poor mental health and rotten teeth, we are not only harming their life chances, but adding a huge burden on the NHS and making the chances of delivering a more prosperous economy that much harder.’
Starmer in January 2024

This pledge was also welcomed by the BDA, with Crouch stating: ‘Supervised brushing is a tried and tested policy, that the government’s own modelling shows pays for itself. It’s a scandal that decay remains the number one reason for hospital admissions among young children. 

‘Prevention isn’t just better than cure, it’s cheaper too.’

Dental deserts

On the Sky News general election debate this week, NHS dentistry was a key topic of discussion. An audience member asked Starmer how he would improve access to NHS dentistry having waited for treatment for over a year.

In response, Starmer said he would generate 700,000 more emergency dental appointments, 100,000 more dental appointments for children and incentivise graduate dentists to practise in the NHS.

He also mentioned a recent visit to Alder Hey hospital, where tooth decay is the most common reason for hospital admission for children.

‘How have we got to this state in 2024 where basic things like dentistry are a problem in our country?’ he said. ‘What on earth has happened to get us to this place?’

‘We’ve got to fix it. I look forward, on the first day we get into government, to starting on this job. I just want to get on with the job.’

Contract changes

If the Labour Party win the election, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has promised to meet with dental representatives to begin negotiations on the NHS dental contract.

He said: ‘Unlike lots of the other parts of the NHS, the challenge in dentistry is that we’ve got quite a lot of dentists, but the contract is so out of date that it just doesn’t pay what the dentistry is worth.

‘So we’re going to have to negotiate a new dentistry contact. I’ve committed to getting the BDA in on the Monday after the general election if we win because I see it as that big a priority.’

British trade union Community has welcomed Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting’s commitment to meet with dentistry representatives within a week of the General Election should Labour win power – a clear signal of the party’s ambition for the sector.

Assistant general secretary of Community, Alasdair McDiarmid, said: ‘The UK’s dentistry sector has been neglected for far too long by the Tory government. Waiting times are up, staff are demoralised and they have no plan to get us out of this crisis.

‘That’s why we welcome Wes Streeting’s commitment to meet with representatives of the dental sector within the first week of a UK Labour government. Because it shows the drive and ambition for patients, dental nurses and dentists to change things for the better.’

Liberal Democrats

The NHS has been at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, with a pledge to save it.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto pledges to tackle the NHS crisis by ‘investing in public health and early access to community services’, including dentists.

It says: ‘Getting an appointment with a GP can take weeks and seeing an NHS dentist is almost impossible. People are no longer confident that when they ring 999 an ambulance will turn up in time.

‘Millions are waiting for treatment, unable to work. The frontline workers who were rightly applauded are now overworked and burnt out.’

The Liberal Democrats has promised to ‘guarantee access to an NHS dentist for everyone needing urgent and emergency care’. It also pledges to put an end to DIY dentistry and dental deserts, and reform and increase funding for the NHS dental contract.

NHS dentistry action

The Liberal Democrats’ NHS dentistry pledges in full:

  • Bring dentists back to the NHS from the private sector by fixing the broken NHS dental contract and using flexible commissioning to meet patient needs
  • Introduce an emergency scheme to guarantee access to free NHS dental check-ups for those already eligible (children, new mothers, those who are pregnant and those on low incomes)
  • Guarantee appointments for those who need a dental check before commencing surgery, chemotherapy or transplant
  • Provide supervised toothbrushing training for children in nurseries and schools
  • Scrap VAT on children’s toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Likewise, the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ campaign focuses NHS dentistry, pledging to tackle Scotland’s dental deserts.

At the campaign launch, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: ‘Getting you fast access to an NHS dentist is at the heart of our offer to voters at this election. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to save NHS dentistry.’

The party criticised the Conservatives and the SNP for ‘neglecting’ NHS dentistry, leaving millions without access to dental care.

As a result, it promised to:

  • Overhaul the SNP’s ‘failed’ recovery plan
  • Prioritise workforce planning and boosting the number of dentists taking on NHS patients
  • Speed up the registration process for qualified overseas dentists.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, said at the campaign launch: ‘Right here in Fife there isn’t a single NHS dentist currently open to new patients.

‘People are resorting to DIY dentistry and buying tools off Amazon to do the job themselves because they can’t get an NHS dentist. Some Ukrainians have even travelled back to Kyiv for dental care because the air raid sirens, drone strikes and cruise missiles are less daunting than the waits in Scotland’s NHS.

He added: ‘No matter how much pain you are in, seeing an NHS dentist in Scotland is harder than ever before. It’s a stark reminder of how the SNP make empty promises and can’t get the basics right.’

Green Party

‘The NHS faces the worst crisis in its 80-year history. This is the result of deliberate Conservative under-funding that’s seen the NHS undermined and at risk of collapse, paving the way for further privatisation. The Green Party is committed to a fully public, properly funded health and social care system, and to keeping the profit motive well away from the NHS.’
Green Party 2024 general election manifesto

In this year’s election, the Green Party is hoping to secure four Green MPs in the House of Commons – more than the party has had before.

The party’s manifesto has pledged to deliver ‘guaranteed access to an NHS dentist’ if it wins the election. It will also put a stop to the ‘systematic underfunding of dentistry’ and the ‘scandal of dental treatment deserts’.

To do this, it will aim to create a new NHS dental contract which suitably rewards dentists for treating NHS patients. It will also invest into community hubs and primary care in order to deliver free dental nursing for children and people on low incomes.

Most significantly, the party will also allocate additional budget to NHS dentistry, with the aim of reaching three billion pounds a year by 2030.

Oral health focus

The party has also pledged to increase the salaries of NHS frontline workers, including dentists. 

Adrian Ramsay is co-leader of the Green Party. He said: ‘If people are to have access to an NHS dentist or a GP appointment, if we are to create warm secure homes for all and fund the green transition to tackle the climate crisis and create the jobs of tomorrow, we must be honest today.’

The British Society of Paediatric Dentistry (BSPD) has welcomed the Green Party manifesto, commenting: ‘BSPD welcomes this focus on prevention and addressing the crisis in access along with a commitment to contract reform.

‘We don’t believe good oral health needn’t cost the [earth].’

Plaid Cymru

At the launch of its manifesto, Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth called for ‘fair’ funding for Wales.

The Welsh party laid out a number of health policies, with a heavy focus on improving the NHS workforce. The manifesto reads: ‘Plaid Cymru strongly believes in the principle of healthcare free at the point of delivery, funded through general taxation.

‘We oppose the privatisation of services by stealth through outsourcing, and will work to ensure that our NHS is properly funded through a new fairer and needs-based funding model for Wales.’

It proposed a couple of pledges specific to dentistry. These include:

  • Opening a new dental school in Bangor, as part of the new medical school ‘to train more dentists to answer Wales’s needs’
  • Scrapping the dental charge increases.

Reform UK

Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP has released its manifesto, with little mention of dentistry. But it has previously said that protecting the NHS is a key focus.

The party has said: ‘The SNP believe that the NHS is our most important public resource and we will do everything we can to ensure that it is properly funded and protected as a public service.

‘We will always keep Scotland’s NHS safe in public hands.’

This story will continue to be updated in the run up to the July election date.

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