Why Suffolk has a dentist crisis - Brexit, Covid and no dental school blamed

NHS Dentist protest in Bury St Edmunds. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Toothless in Suffolk campaigners taking part in a protest in Bury St Edmunds over the lack of NHS dentists - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Dentist vacancies can remain unfilled for more than two years in Suffolk - because not having a dental school makes recruitment difficult.

Council leaders were told Brexit and a poor deal on NHS contracts had also added to the local recruitment crisis, which has left people being forced to travel out of county to get treatment.

East Suffolk Council is now writing to the Department of Health and Social Care outlining the district’s concerns and calling for an urgent rethink of the NHS contracts.

Members of its scrutiny committee held a meeting to quiz Suffolk and Norfolk dentists - who exposed the extent of the problem - after growing concern from residents about the lack of dentists.

Leiston is one of the hardest hit towns after losing two dental practices in the space of 18 months; there are now no dentists at all in the town. 

The meeting came less than a week after hundreds of people took part in a protest march in Bury St Edmunds organised by the Toothless in Suffolk campaign group.

Councillors were told it was “not unusual in our region of the country to have unfilled vacancies for over two years”.

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Paul Rolfe, secretary of the Suffolk Local Dental Committee, said the region did not have a dental school which made recruitment difficult.

“The difficulty with dentistry is you tend to either work where you qualify or where you are from, and there aren’t many people from the east of England going to dental school,” he said.

“As a result, we are not training enough people in the region who will want to come back.”

The committee heard the region has historically relied on European and New Zealand dentists, but this had become more difficult as a result of Brexit and Covid-19.

Additionally, only dentists on the NHS dental performers list can carry out NHS appointments, but complicated red tape meant fully qualified dentists from other countries struggled to get added to the list.

Jason Stokes, secretary of the Norfolk Local Dental Committee, said that the NHS contracts were “not fit for purpose”, and of too short a duration to be attractive for surgeries to bid for.

David Barter, head of commissioning for the East of England at NHS England said: “A lot of work is being done by the commissioning team to be able to flexibly commission the contract so that it’s more fit for purpose.

“There are currently live procurements for quite a lot of activity in different parts of Suffolk and Norfolk.

“Without going into any details, these contracts are for an 8am-8pm, seven-day a week, 365 day a year service.

“We are asking the providers to provide healthcare in a slightly different way.

“These new contracts will very much allow all dental clinical professionals in the dental team, overseen by dentists, to provide good oral care for patients.”

Despite the contract changes, it is not yet clear what the take-up will be from practices, with Waveney MP Peter Aldous saying that his conversations with dentists indicated there was concern on surgeries bidding for contracts on that basis.