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Omicron and NHS targets: Dentists in England struggle to restore services

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant in England and the start of the winter season mean that the new standard operating procedures for dentists are unlikely to restore patient access to services. (Image: StepanPopov/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: Since the English government has decided to ease some of the COVID-19 restrictions just as the winter season has arrived, some professional bodies, including the British Dental Association (BDA), are questioning the timing of the decision. In light of the arrival of the Omicron variant and unattainable National Health Service (NHS) targets, the BDA believes that the new standard operating procedures for dentists will not help improve access to dental care in the country. This is also reflected in a recent survey that has highlighted issues about the restoration of services in the country.

According to the BDA, over 37 million NHS appointments have been lost since lockdown solely in England, including over 11 million lost appointments for children. The new standard operating procedure model, which was introduced at the end of November, is based on the likelihood of a patient carrying respiratory infection and places them on two pathways, respiratory and non-respiratory. Patients who are placed on the non-respiratory pathway can be managed in line with pre-COVID-19 standard infection control precautions, whereas those placed on the respiratory pathway are subject to enhanced precautions, including fallow periods of up to 60 minutes between treatments.

In a recent survey of high street dentists in England, nearly a third of dentists (33%) said they have no intention of relaxing COVID-19 precautions, mostly owing to the arrival of the Omicron variant in England. Since winter is also often referred to as the cold and flu season and may cause a surge in respiratory illnesses that will automatically put patients on the respiratory pathway, 62% of the respondents believe that the changes to COVID-19 restrictions will have little to no effect on the patient volumes in dental clinics.

The data has also revealed that, owing to the current pressures on the service, over 40% of dentists are likely to change careers or seek early retirement in the next 12 months. Additionally, more than half of the respondents stated that they are considering reducing their NHS commitment, and one in ten foresees practice closure in the next 12 months.

The majority of the respondents, 72%, stated that the lack of clarity over the activity targets, which were imposed by the UK government and are expected to increase on 1 January 2022, is affecting their confidence. Similarly, 70% of respondents believe that the uncertainty over the direction of pledged reforms to the service is undermining their morale, and nearly two-thirds of practices (62%) estimate that they are still operating under 70% of their pre-COVID-19 capacity.

Commenting on the situation, Dr Eddie Crouch, chair of the BDA’s Principal Executive Committee, said in the BDA’s blog: “We have long pressed for a roadmap to safely ease COVID restrictions in dentistry. Yet the timing of this move, relaxing many key measures in practice just as Government moves to tighten others in wider society, has left some members struggling with the mixed messages.” He added that, as a result of the introduction of new standard operating procedures, the arrival of Omicron and the imposed activity targets, dentists are now faced with many unanswered questions regarding the safety of teams and patients, as well as practical issues such as the need for personal protective equipment supplies, proper air ventilation and capital funding.

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