A Labour government will offer free dental check-ups for everyone in England, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has said.
The party has unveiled plans to scrap band one dentistry charges and to provide everyone in England with a free MOT with their dentist, which will include a check for oral cancer.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the policy, which the British Dental Association has estimated will cost £450 million per year, is part of the party’s plans to move towards providing dental services free at the point of use.
Offering free dental check-ups will encourage more people to go to the dentist, with nearly one in five patients currently delaying going to the dentist as they cannot afford it, Labour said.
The party added that their plans would take pressure off both GPs and hospitals.
It is estimated that around 380,000 patients visiting their GPs with toothache cost the NHS over £20 million a year, with an additional £18 million spent on around 135,000 patients attending A&E units with dental problems.
Labour said free dental check-ups could play a key role in detecting the early signs of oral cancer and will also greatly improve children’s oral health, with tooth decay the main reason for hospital admissions among five to nine-year-olds.
Mr Corbyn said: “Over half of adults and 40% of children haven’t been to the dentist in the last year.
“If you don’t go to the dentist for check-ups, you end up storing up problems in the long term. Over 100,000 are admitted to hospital every year because of problems with their teeth.
“This is the first step towards making all dentistry services free of charge – part of our ambition to deliver free dentistry as part of a truly universally free health service.
“Dentists are often the people who detect oral cancers and other serious problems.
“We value all our dentists and dental nurses.”
Dental care was free at the point of use when the NHS was launched in 1948, but due to overwhelming demand, charges for dentures, the first charges of any kind for NHS treatment, were introduced in 1951.
Charging for dental procedures proved to be controversial and led to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, the Labour minister who played a pivotal role in bringing the NHS into existence.
Other charges for treatment soon followed and today, a band one NHS dental check-up costs a patient £22.70.
Free dental check-ups would also reduce the number of people partaking in so-called “DIY dentistry”, the shadow health secretary added.
Mr Ashworth said: “It’s shocking that so called ‘DIY dentistry’ is becoming so common with people resorting to doing their own fillings and seriously risking their teeth deteriorating further.
“With 135,000 patients presenting at A&E with dental problems every year, it’s time we put prevention at the heart of our approach to dental health.
“People should not be risking their teeth because they can’t afford the care. With Labour, dental check-up fees will be scrapped as we help people live healthier lives.”
The party added that their full pledge on NHS England funding will be laid out in their forthcoming fully costed manifesto, and that this funding will come in addition to the £26 billion already announced earlier in the week.
British Dental Association Chair Mick Armstrong said: “When you give patients a reason to avoid check-ups, they bottle up problems and pile huge pressure across our NHS.
“Sadly prevention is impossible when families on moderate incomes need to think twice about seeking care.
“Dentists are health professionals, not tax collectors. These charges are designed to discourage attendance, while providing cover for government cuts.
“However any plans to boost access must go hand in hand with support for a service facing serious recruitment problems. NHS dentistry cannot be delivered without NHS dentists.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “Dental check-ups are already free for those who don’t have the means to pay.
“Labour’s plans will force taxpayers to foot yet another bill amounting to hundreds of millions pounds, simply to extend provision to people who can already afford it.
“Labour’s proposals for a four-day week and uncontrolled immigration would cripple our NHS, leaving it understaffed and underfunded, and we would waste all of next year with two chaotic referendums under Corbyn.”