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Senedd backs call for more dentists in Wales

THE SENEDD called on the Welsh Government to increase the number of training places for dentists amid warnings about “dental deserts” across the country.

Siân Gwenllian led a cross-party debate on dentistry training, with the Conservatives and Lib Dems joining forces with Plaid Cymru to amplify concerns about poor access to services.

Ms Gwenllian said a shortage of dentists exacerbates Wales’ “three-tier” system, with none of the practices in her Arfon constituency taking on new NHS patients.

She said: “A three-tier system where some are fortunate to access an NHS dentist, others can pay to go privately and the third tier, unfortunately, are those who can’t access NHS dentistry and can’t afford to pay to go privately.

“I don’t have to outline the problems that emerge for those in the third tier. Members are only too familiar with horrific stories about sepsis and do-it-yourself dentistry.”

Ms Gwenllian told the chamber, or Siambr, a common-sense solution would be to increase the number of university training places.

“But, to the contrary, the government sets a cap on the number of places that can be provided in our only school of dentistry in Cardiff – an annual cap of 74 places,” she said. 

The former councillor and journalist criticised a new dental workforce strategy, saying it does not commit to any specific increase in educational or training provision for dentists.

Pointing to a Tory commitment to a 24% increase in undergraduate places in England, she said: “Unfortunately, the party of Aneurin Bevan hasn’t shown the same ambition.

“And it is depressing and it’s a stain on Wales that the ability of a number of our constituents to access dentistry is reliant on their ability to pay.”

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The Plaid Cymru politician argued having one school of dentistry in south Wales will never be sufficient to meet the needs of the whole country.

Sam Rowlands, the Conservatives’ shadow health secretary, said provision in north Wales is “simply not good enough” as he raised concerns about “dental deserts”.

He agreed that 74 places a year is not enough to plug the gap as he echoed calls for a “fully funded and fully functioning” dental school in his region.

Carolyn Thomas, who also represents North Wales, said people across the UK are struggling to access NHS dentists, with nine in ten not accepting new patients.

The Labour member recognised Wales-specific challenges on recruitment and retention, but pointed to progress with the dental academy in Bangor.

She told the chamber Labour has a fully costed plan to “rescue” dentistry at a UK level which will lead to much-needed consequential funding for Wales.

Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru’s shadow health secretary, raised concerns about a “failure to retain dentists and an even greater failure to train new dentists”.

Mr ap Gwynfor said only eight people from Wales got a place on Cardiff’s dentistry course last year, with only about half of the wider annual cohort choosing to stay in Wales.

Rhys ab Owen criticised a lack of data, saying: “It’s astonishing that we can’t say here and now in the Senedd how many people are waiting to see a dentist under the health service.”

Mr ab Owen raised a constituent’s concerns about their son, who was referred aged 11, having to wait nine years until he is 20 for orthodontic treatment.

The independent, who represents South Wales Central, said: “My constituent’s son has experienced bullying, his confidence has been knocked and his self-esteem damaged.”

Eluned Morgan told the July 3 debate that NHS dentistry has been a key priority since she became Wales’ health minister four years ago.

Providing an update on the recommendations of a 2023 health committee report on dentistry, Baroness Morgan said work on an all-Wales central waiting list is under way.

The health secretary reiterated that the key aim of dental reforms was new patients who have historically struggled to get access to NHS dental care.

Baroness Morgan said 500,000 people who had not received NHS dental care for more than four years have gained access since the reforms restarted in April 2022.

She said: “It’s interesting to note that an incoming Labour Government is also planning to deliver new NHS appointments, but proportionally we’re streets ahead of where the UK Tory Government was in terms of NHS access by new patients.”

Turning to dental training places, she stressed the need to take a “long-term evidence-based view” and be careful not to “over-focus” on dentists.

Baroness Morgan, a former member of the European parliament, said any increase would be difficult due to financial challenges and a lack of spaces at Cardiff’s dental school.

She said a second school would be the best option but warned: “That would mean a great deal of investment and financial pressures don’t allow that at present.”

However, she encouraged a joint proposal from Aberystwyth and Bangor universities.

The motion – which was co-submitted by Ms Gwenllian and Jane Dodds, the Lib Dems leader in Wales – was agreed with 29 for, none against and 15 abstentions.

Seven Labour backbenchers voted in favour.

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