Dentists face a “tsunami” of untreated tooth decay because children have been kept away from dental surgeries during lockdown.
Half of parents in the UK said their children had missed a check-up since March, according to an Opinium survey for the Association of Dental Groups (ADG), which represents practices across the country.
The survey of 2,000 people included 622 parents, with 31% saying their family had decided not to go for a check-up or make an appointment. Another 13% said they had not been able to get an appointment – a sign of the growing problem of delays caused by the pandemic.
Dental practices were forced to shut after coronavirus hit, but have been allowed to reopen since 8 June.
Related: Children’s tooth decay costs NHS more than £40m a year in England
The ADG said the vast majority of dental practices were now open for face-to-face care, with some using remote consultations, as GPs have done. However, Covid-19 precautions mean dentists in England must allow a “fallow period” of 60 minutes after any procedures that might generate aerosol particles, such as using a drill. It means that dentists can see far fewer patients, and many have complained that the rules are more stringent than in other countries.
“Before lockdown, there were already serious backlogs of people needing dental appointments, and the ongoing restrictions on dentistry since lockdown are only making that worse,” said ADG chair Neil Carmichael.
“Our big worry is children, whose tooth enamel is softer and thinner, and more vulnerable to sugary ‘lockdown diets’. When routine appointments restart, dentists could face a tsunami of tooth decay to tackle.”
Next month a report from the ADG will warn that more hospital operations will be needed to remove unsaveable teeth.
As well as the lack of check-ups and increased sugar consumption, many oral health programmes, which are vital for reaching some of the country’s poorest children, remain shut. Sue Jordan, a director at Community Dental Services, which delivers oral health services in southern England and the Midlands, said: “Over lockdown 90% of our outreach to the most vulnerable communities in our regions has been shut down. In normal times we support more than 2,000 young children to do supervised teeth cleaning.”
Meanwhile nearly half of all adults have missed appointments since March, leading to an increased risk of mouth cancer, according to the ADG.
Dentist groups say ministers need to take urgent action to increase the number of dentists in the UK, with tens of thousands of of people waiting to be accepted by an NHS practice.