The cost of the pandemic on children's dental treatment in Norfolk
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Children's access to the dentist plummeted in Norfolk last year, with patients under 18 accessing 100,000 fewer treatments than the year before, according to new figures.
Every authority in Norfolk was significantly hit by the pandemic, with the head of the British Dental Association warning it could take years to repair the damage.
Across Norfolk 57,093 courses of treatment were given to patients under 18, 63pc fewer than the 152,364 recorded the previous year. This was felt nationally with a 59pc drop in England from 11.6m treatments to 4.7m.
A steep decline was seen for the most routine treatments, which cover procedures including examinations and diagnosis, with 40,445 courses given in 2020, a drop of 66pc from 2019.
In the region, Great Yarmouth saw the greatest decrease in this type of appointments falling to under 4,000 from 13,575 in 2019, a drop of 73pc.
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Jason Stokes, from the Local Dentist Committee, said the first national lockdown created a significant backlog in patient care and safety measures restricted patient numbers, and that the reduction in treatment and access will continue "for the foreseeable future".
He said: "Every dental practice is open, we are working to the standard operating procedures the NHS has given us. We are safe place to come, but at the moment, it's very difficult to see the volume we used to see pre-COVID. We are probably at about half the numbers of people we used to see on a daily basis, and when we carry out an extensive procedure, it reduces the number of patients we can see on that particular day significantly.
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"There will be potential risks to health if access to care remains depressed in the longer term. We hope that the commissioners of dental services support practices in delivering a greater level of treatment in a safe way. This will need an enhanced workforce to provide the care of the future. This should be coupled with increased funding for programmes of disease prevention.
"In the short term practices will continue to work at maximum capacity to support their patients. However, there is a limit to this capacity with dental teams at risk of burn out."
The figures, obtained through a freedom of information request, show that urgent procedures, such as swelling, severe toothache or facial pain that cannot be controlled by painkillers, fell on average by 23pc in Norfolk and as much as 37pc in West Norfolk.
In North Norfolk, 5,513 patients under 18 were given a course of treatment in 2020. This included 4,000 routine child treatments and 495 urgent appointments. In 2019 the total number of treatments was 14,571.
Alfie Brewster, six, from Thurgarton, North Norfolk, was left in agony for weeks when he could not get an emergency appointment for toothache.
His grandmother Michelle Robinson spoke of the trouble trying to get an appointment as he could not be seen without a referral from his registered practice.
A practice in Wymondham offered to treat Alfie, but were unable to when he developed abscesses, which would have required him to be sedated. The family went private and Alfie's tooth was removed the week before Christmas.
The grandmother-of-four said: "We would have paid £1,000 to get Alfie out of pain. None of my grandchildren have been seen through the whole situation, they have had their appointments cancelled.
"I do not know how many dentists I rang, most of them. It was sheer luck my daughter posted on Facebook did anyone know a dentist and we found one in Wymondham. You shouldn't have to travel 40 miles to be seen, not when you're a child who is in that pain.
"If he hadn't have had his normal appointment cancelled, he would have had his check-up it would have been treated and he wouldn't have had a tooth out."
The chief executive of health watchdog Healthwatch Norfolk Alex Stewart and West Norfolk MP James Wild both said the figures reflect a long-running issue of accessing dentists in Norfolk and Waveney and more provision was needed.
Mr Wild said: “In the short term our focus must be on increasing dental activity safely and prioritising treatment to ensure people get urgent care and have planned care that has been delayed. However, the NHS needs to commission additional capacity to provide better access, particularly in Norfolk West Norfolk."
Mr Stewart added: "The figures are worrying to say the least.
One of the things that concerns us is the longer the pandemic goes on for the numbers are going to continue to grow.
"There will be problems later in life and you are never going to get this under control. We are setting up a large problem for the future."
Moves have also been made by government to impose targets on dental practices in England. Those that fail to hit 45% of their pre-pandemic activity targets between January and April 2021 could face very significant financial penalties.
Mr Stokes said such action could bankrupt some practices.
He said: "The loss of a single practice from Norfolk could deprive thousands of people access to dental care. This should be avoided at all costs."