The number of courses of dental treatment given to children in England dropped by 70% in the year after the first coronavirus lockdown, figures show.
Data from NHS Digital shows there were 3.3 million courses of dental treatment given to children between April 2020 and March 2021, down from the 11.6 million delivered in the previous 12 months.
A total of 12.0 million courses of dental treatment were delivered across England in 2020-21, down 69% from the 38.4 million in 2019-20.
The British Dental Association (BDA) said that more than nine million children had missed out on care in the year following the first lockdown – announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23 2020.
Dental practices were instructed to close and cease all routine dental care from March 25 and reopened on June 8, with dentists and dental surgeons forced to stick to strict infection control rules due to Covid-19.
This includes leaving “fallow time” after certain procedures and social distancing requirements.
The BDA said capacity across dental services remained low, with it understanding that around half the NHS practices in England are not meeting Government targets to hit 60% of pre-Covid activity levels.
Shawn Charlwood, chair of the BDA’s general dental practice committee, said: “Millions are still missing out on dental care, and patients will be paying the price for years to come.
“Dentists in England have had capacity slashed by pandemic restrictions and need help to get patients back through their doors.”
The BDA said that while the other UK nations had provided capital funding to help practices increase capacity through new “high-volume ventilation systems”, there had been no commitment from authorities in England.
It also called for a clear road map to safely ease restrictions, including the instructions to maintain “gaps” between appointments that have “radically” reduced patient volumes.
Mr Charlwood said: “Sadly while every other UK nation has committed funds, Westminster chose to impose targets that thousands of practices are now struggling to hit.
“To deliver for patients, we need real support and a clear road map to ease restrictions. But even before Covid there simply wasn’t enough NHS dentistry to go round.
“We cannot return to a ‘business as usual’ where access problems are the norm.”
The figures come after a group of dental surgeons warned that people in need of dental surgery could be forced to wait two years for care.
A poll by the Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) found that almost two in five (39%) dental surgeons think the backlog of care caused by the coronavirus pandemic will take at least a year to clear.
And 19% believe it will take more than two years to get through the volume of patients waiting for treatment.
A quarter (25%) of 300 dental surgeons polled by the FDS, which is part of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said that the majority of people on their waiting list were children.
Its latest report warns that patients waiting for dental treatment are often in pain, making it difficult to eat and sleep, and delays can lead to a deterioration in their condition and ultimately mean more complex treatment is required.
Matthew Garrett, dean of the FDS, said: “The good news is that, for the most part, dental services are back up and running.
“Eight in 10 of our members told us they were back providing routine procedures, and the majority are providing emergency treatment.
“That said, the pandemic created a significant backlog of patients needing treatment, which will not be cleared anytime soon.
“Also worrying is that up to a quarter (25%) of our members have told us most patients on their waiting lists are children.”
NHS England’s chief dental officer, Sara Hurley, said: “It’s inevitable that the upheaval caused by Covid has disrupted some people’s dental care but dentists have been prioritising treatment for patients in urgent need, in part through the rapid establishment of 600 urgent dental centres – with millions still getting care through the pandemic.
“The NHS has put to good use additional resources to tackle Covid and recover all services – with NHS dental teams working hard to see patients as quickly and safely as possible and provision of urgent care has been at pre-pandemic levels since December.”