Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: Dentists voice concern as routine care resumes

Dentist Image copyright Getty Images

Routine dental care is allowed to resume in Northern Ireland from Monday.

There will be some restrictions - including up to one hour between some patients being seen, so surgeries can be cleaned.

But some dentists have said a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) means that not all practices in Northern Ireland can fully reopen.

A number of services, including dentistry, were halted at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March.

BBC News NI revealed last week that a major delivery of PPE had been delayed until 20 July.

About three million items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were to be delivered, with dentists warning that the week-long delay would see treatments pushed back.

The consignment consisted of level one PPE, which includes items such as gloves and aprons, and is required for non-aerosol-generating procedures (non-AGPs).

Last week the Department of Health said the logistical challenge of the delivery had been "significant" and that urgent dental care centres would remain open.

Northern Ireland has five urgent dental care centres, located across each of the five health trust areas. They have provided most emergency care for dental patients throughout the pandemic.

'Crisis happening right now'

However one dentist has warned that NI dentists are in "crisis".

Alan Clarke, who works at a dental practice in north Belfast, told BBC Good Morning Ulster that dentists may not be able to cover costs and as a result many may have to close.

"We, as dental contractors, are independent practitioners and we really have no assurances what the situation is going to be going forward for dental care in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Today, all practices will be getting calls coming in but really we're in such a difficult situation and I wouldn't even say it's a pending crisis. There is a crisis happening right now," he added.

Image copyright Getty Images

Dentists have appealed to the Department of Health to cover the cost of purchasing a higher level of Personal Protective Equipment.

One professional body had warned that as many as 90% of NI dental practices may not be able to provide aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs), like fillings, until at least level two PPE has been secured.

Level two PPE, such as gowns and eye protection, is required for AGPs.

It is understood it cannot provide level two PPE without jeopardising supply for the trusts.


Analysis

Marie-Louise Connolly, BBC News NI Health Correspondent

Like so many things Covid-19 has triggered, dentists are now coming forward and raising their problems. The cost of providing level 2 PPE could, they say, tip many of the businesses just over the edge with how expensive it is to provide.

What has been interesting in talking to dentists in recent days, if they have to perform the AGPs - which might more normally be referred to as a filling - they have to close down the room for an hour each patient.

One dentist said they might see up to 20 or 30 patients a day, and this measure would mean they might only see a fifth of their normal patients. Footfall is going to be affected.

Dentists will then perhaps turn down doing fillings, and instead go for the more lucrative treatments like a crown, which would cost perhaps hundreds of pounds. They therefore then would make profit on that particular treatment.

They are saying if they have to provide level 2 PPE, to treat their patients safely and keep their team safe, then the department should be coughing up more to cover those costs.


The department said the urgent dental care centres will be staffed until the end of August while the gradual resumption of general dental services continues.

In a statement the department said: "The minister has also announced that the Financial Support Scheme, which has already provided £16 million in payments to local dentists, will continue for a further month to support the return of non-urgent dental care as the restrictions are lifted."

Libraries across Northern Ireland are also preparing to reopen later as part of a pilot scheme launched by Libraries NI.

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