Dentistry: the impact of COVID

There have been widespread issues with access to NHS dental care as a result of COVID-19. We discuss some of the findings, and describe work that is going on to improve things.
Dentist looking at a dental x-ray

Healthwatch England calls for action 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Healthwatch England have seen a significant increase in the number of people telling them about the problems they have faced when trying to get an NHS dentist appointment, suggesting the impact the pandemic has had on dentistry has been particularly acute. 

Between July and September 2020, they heard from 1,313 people about their experiences of dentistry.

The review of over 1,300 people’s experiences of accessing dental care from 43 local Healthwatch showed:

  • More than 7 in 10 people (73%) found it difficult to access help and support when they needed it.
  • Access issues were caused by dentists not taking on NHS patients, as well as conflicting advice from different parts of the NHS about what help is available.
  • Many people were offered treatment if they went private, despite research indicating that 40% of people would struggle to afford private dental care.
  • The impact of not being able to access care led to many people to experience pain, discomfort and further complications.

The Healthwatch in England report can be accessed here.

The increase in feedback comes after the British Dental Association reported that treatments delivered by NHS dental services in England are at a quarter of pre-COVID levels, with over 14.5 million fewer procedures taking place.

Key recommendations

While the Healthwatch in England report accepts that the overall treatment backlog caused by the pandemic will take time to clear due to limited industry capacity and COVID-related restrictions, it makes several recommendations including:

  • providing more accurate and up-to-date information for patients
  • providing clarity over NHS dentists’ obligations relating to patient registration
  • making more resources available to improve patient access to dental care and;
  • reviewing the overall cost to patients of NHS dental care, particularly with a 5% price increase set to take effect before Christmas.

Healthwatch England is also calling for people on low incomes who are forced to travel long distances to access dental care to be reimbursed.

The British Dental Association has backed the Healthwatch call to fix system in crisis.

What has Healthwatch Brighton and Hove heard?

Healthwatch Brighton and Hove asked local people to tell us about their experiences of dental care from September to December 2020, and 56 people responded. This is not a large enough sample to be representative, nor a sample from which we can draw firm conclusions, however, it gives a snapshot and is supported by similar issues and themes being identified by Healthwatch in East and West Sussex and nationally by Healthwatch England.

Our sample in Brighton and Hove showed:

  • Accessing a dental service - 46.7% said this was ‘very difficult’, 13.3% difficult.
  • Finding out about how COVID-19 had affected dental services – 28.6% people found this ‘easy’, 23.2% ‘very easy’, which means that 48.2% did not.
  • When seeking help from a dentist and leaving a message or email, 25% never heard back from the dental service, and 37.5% heard back longer than 3 days.
  • Respondents were satisfied with the advice they had from dentists where 16.4% were ‘very satisfied’ and 43.6% ‘satisfied’.
  • Respondents were dissatisfied with waiting times to see someone - 24.1% were ‘dissatisfied’ and 35.2% ‘very dissatisfied’.

What action are we taking?

We provided our findings to the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 9th December (for information on the role of the HOSC click here).

We asked the HOSC to exert pressure on NHS Commissioners to improve access to dental services and clarify important issues for the public which they have agreed to do.

We have also asked local MPs to table questions to the Secretary of State for Health and other government ministers. On the 11th November 2020, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Health on Dental Services, having received a briefing from Healthwatch Brighton and Hove she is planning to raise more issues with Government Ministers.

We have also engaged the NHS Sussex Commissioners to help us get more answers and action from NHS England who commission dental services.  

Our dental survey, combined with the excellent work done by one of our volunteers Chris Jennings, and efforts by colleagues in Healthwatch West Sussex mean that city leaders are fully aware of your concerns.

Healthwatch in Sussex

On the 19th November 2020 the three local Healthwatch in Sussex met with NHS England, who commission dental services, and raised the following issues:         

  • Can they provide a simple guide for people identifying what dental services are available for NHS patients and a list of dentists offering NHS treatment?
  • Can NHS England clarify the criteria on which dentists are prioritising what services to offer, and to whom?
  • What plans are there to help dental services restore and recovery from the impact of COVID?

As yet, Healthwatch have had no reply from NHS England and we note that they declined to give evidence to the December HOSC.


You can download the bulletin here. If you need it in a different formate please contact us at: 


Healthwatch in Sussex report, November 2020
Healthwatch England report

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