Last week the NHS turned 74. Labour’s greatest creation, it is the bedrock of a healthier and more equal nation, and I look forward to significant celebrations next year.
However, one of the bugbears more people are writing to me about is how increasingly difficult it is to access dental and GP care. In Tameside, we are blessed with some exceptionally effective, hardworking GP surgeries and dentists. Yet the fact is, they are busier than ever, and if you’ve just moved here, trying to register with a GP or as an NHS dental patient can be a nightmare.
Several constituents have reported unacceptable waiting times for dental care. Living in pain obviously awful for individuals, and is bad news for productivity, too. Having to wait well over a year to have a throbbing wisdom tooth removed might be good for paracetamol sales, but it undoubtedly has an impact on how much work a person can get done, and their wider wellbeing.
My mailbag is sadly reflective of an emerging national crisis in accessing dental and GP services. Record numbers of people are waiting for care, and waiting longer than ever before. The Conservatives have overseen an exodus of NHS dentists, leaving people who can’t afford to go private unable to get any care at all. 2,000 dentists quit the NHS last year, around 10% of all dentists employed in England. An estimated 4 million people can’t access NHS dental care, with parts of the country now described as ‘dentistry deserts’, because remaining NHS dentists aren’t taking on new patients. Government spend on dental practices in England has been cut by over a third over the past decade in real terms.
Across Greater Manchester, local Healthwatch organisations have recorded a sixfold increase in dental enquiries in a single year. According to the British Dentistry Association, emergency teeth extractions are now the most common reason for children to go to hospital. What kind of country have we become, when children are forced to attend hospital to have their teeth removed?
There are also an astounding 4500 fewer GPs than a decade ago, and in the last alone, England has lost the equivalent of 395 fully qualified full-time GPs. At the last election the Conservatives promised to hire more GPs, but now their own Health Secretary Sajid Javid confessed, they are now breaking their promise. This is all such a false economy, as investing in improving access to quality GP care actually saves the taxpayer money long-term, ensuring fewer conditions are missed and less acute care is needed. It would also mean fewer people presenting at A&E unnecessarily. The average taxpayer cost of a GP appointment is £39; to attend an urgent care centre is £77; to show up at A&E is £359.
I was pleased to see one innovative solution emerging locally, when I had the pleasure of formally opening the new Stalybridge, Dukinfield and Mossley Primary Care Network Centre. We are one of the first places on the country to have a PCN centre, and it means more services being offered here that otherwise wouldn’t be available, or would have to be provided in a hospital. Patients may get referred for services like physio, mental heath support, weight management, cancer screening and much more, including health services for homeless people.
But nationally, the problems are getting worse and worse, and the longer we give the Conservatives, the longer patients will wait. I want to see a Government that put patients first. The last Labour government reduced waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks. I will always be proud that a Labour Government established the NHS, and I am confident that the next Labour government will secure its future, providing the doctors, dentists, nurses, equipment and modern technology to get patients the treatment they need. I love the NHS. Let’s make sure our grandchildren do, too.