The first lockdown had a crippling effect on dentists, with two thirds of the practices I work with experiencing financial difficulty, and many even considering shutting down altogether.
There was almost no clear guidance while dentists were closed — for practitioners or for patients — and confusion abounded. And thanks to gaps in the financial assistance offered to the self-employed, many dentists who run their own practices were offered scarcely any government support at all.
And for what purpose? Dentistry was ahead of the curve when it came to hygiene standards and protocols. A dental practice is one of the cleanest, most sterile places you can be.
Standard pre-Covid precautions used by dentists across the world far exceed many of today’s “Covid-secure” requirements. In spite of this, government requirements for “fallow time” (a gap between patients) makes life difficult for dentists, who are keen to clear patient backlogs and make sure no one slips through the cracks. And that’s if patients make it to an appointment at all — something fewer are doing while the guidance remains unclear.
Throughout the pandemic, dentists have been all but ignored by the government. When the Treasury bailed out businesses, it seemed more concerned about restaurants than dental practices.
This betrays an entirely irrational devaluation of dentists in the UK, even while we sanctify other medical professionals. Dentists are medically trained and are technically doctors, although they are not always considered as such.
Dentists were drafted in, ready to provide Covid care if hospitals became overburdened. They were prepared to serve the nation, and many were disappointed that they weren’t allowed to carry out their duty of care in the first lockdown.
And they stand ready once more to be a crucial part of a vaccine roll-out.
This makes it all the more tragic that they are going through the pandemic with such scant recognition. Some will even see their livelihoods shattered thanks to government oversight.
It is in the national interest to avoid this. If dental practices start facing closures, waiting lists could increase to several years, significantly impacting more impoverished areas.
The short-term risks are even more concerning. It is impossible to view oral health as separate to the rest of the body — in fact, there is growing evidence that oral health is linked to the severity of Covid symptoms when infected. By neglecting our dentists, we could be creating a weak link in the nation’s health defences.
There is still time to change course. Government ministers could come out tomorrow in a TV interview, a press conference, or even in parliament and tell the nation that dentists are open, and that people should not hesitate to contact or visit them. They should rethink some of the unnecessary restrictions on dentists seeing patients, and offer more comprehensive support to practices that are struggling financially.
The pandemic has already taken so much from us. We shouldn’t let it take our smiles too.
Main image credit: Getty