An extra 700,000 urgent dentist appointments and supervised toothbrushing in schools across England would be introduced under Labour plans to improve the nation’s oral health.
People in most need of treatments including fillings and root canal work would be prioritised under the package of proposals aimed at “rescuing NHS dentistry”.
Labour would also seek to tackle preventable tooth decay in children with a programme to help three to five-year-olds form healthy brushing habits, the party said.
Scrapping the regime is how the party proposes to fund the largest-ever workforce expansion of the NHS if it wins the general election expected next year.
Incentives would be offered for new dentists to work in under-served areas under the proposals to tackle so-called “dental deserts” – areas of the country with less access to services.
In his first policy announcement ahead of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, leader Sir Keir Starmer said a Labour government would “do more than fix the basics” by also overhauling the NHS dental contract to change how the service worked in the long term.
“My Labour government will not stand for millions of people being denied basic healthcare. To rescue dentistry from the immediate crisis, we will provide 700,000 more appointments a year to those in the most urgent need, recruit more dentists to areas with the most severe shortages, and protect children’s teeth.
“But my mission-led government will always do more than fix the basics. We will reform the dental contract to rebuild the service in the long-run, so NHS dentistry is there for all who need it.”
It comes after a damning report by the Health and Social Care Committee, published in July, which indicated more people were pulling out their own teeth at home as they could not access NHS services.
Experts have called for urgent change to NHS dentistry after figures revealed the number of patients being seen remained well below pre-pandemic levels.
Data published by NHS Digital revealed 18.1 million adults in England were seen by an NHS dentist in the 24 months leading up to June 2023 compared with 21.9 million in June 2019.
The Government has launched a consultation on how delays could be improved, including a proposal to grant dental hygienists the power to administer certain medicines without the need for a prescription.
But its long-awaited dental recovery plan, which aims to improve access and increase the number of NHS dentists, has not yet been published.
Spokeswoman for the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry Professor Claire Stevens praised the package as a “serious plan to both grip the immediate crisis and set NHS dentistry on the path to recovery in the long-term.”
Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the British Dental Association’s General Dental Practice Committee, said: “We’re seeing patients in pain reach for pliers because of choices made in Westminster.
“Labour has recognised the scale of this crisis. NHS dentistry is hanging by a thread, and every party has a moral responsibility to set out a plan.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, compared it to Government plans for a ban on mobile phones in schools, saying neither offered “the immediate response needed to solve the mounting crises in schools”.
“We have serious reservations about how such a policy could even work. It is not the role of teachers to be making sure children brush their teeth each day. We should demand more than window dressing from all of our politicians,” he said.
Health minister Neil O’Brien said: “Labour’s sums do not add up. They are taking people for fools.”
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are making progress to boost NHS dental services and the number of children seen by NHS dentists rose by 14% last year.
“Compared to the previous year, 1.7 million more adults and 800,000 more children are receiving NHS dental care.
“We fund more than £3 billion of NHS dentistry a year and are taking preventative measures to improve children’s oral health, such as expanding water fluoridation schemes.
“We have also announced plans to increase dental training places by 40% and recently launched a consultation to better utilise the skills of dental hygienists and therapists.
“Further measures to improve access and increase the number of NHS dentists through our dental recovery plan will be set out shortly.”