DENTAL patients in Dumbarton and the Vale could be forced to pay more for treatment as Covid-19 funding cuts start to bite.

Area dentists have expressed fears for residents needing treatment and warned of a “stranglehold” on practices.

West Dunbartonshire has a “poor” record for dental health but even after months of pandemic lockdown have been eased, dental surgeries are limited to less than a quarter of daily patient numbers.

Infection controls have forced a dramatic reduction in how practices operate, but there has also been a limit on what procedures can be offered on the NHS.

Ghyll McCallum, principal dentist at Levengrove Dental Care, told the Reporter: “I don’t think there’s any government that would like to be the one that has it on their agenda to pull the plug on NHS dentistry, but they may continue to restrict NHS dentistry.

“As far as dentists are concerned, I’ve heard of some practices in Edinburgh that are withdrawing from NHS care.

“I think we’re all worried. Currently we’re staying afloat because of the support package we have, but we’re only working with 20 per cent of what we have been normally doing, and the concern is what is the long-term plan from the government.

“The funding we have received has not gone up over the years, but expenses have. If this [Covid-19] is used as another opportunity to reduce funding, then it could be a stranglehold.”

In 2018, the dental health of West Dunbartonshire children was branded “poor” compared to the average for the whole NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area.

There was an increase in both P1 and P7 children considered to be needing to see a dentist as soon as possible due to severe decay or abscess.

Scotland’s chief dental officer has said a process will start soon that could lead to changes to how NHS dental services are funded. The current system sees dentists paid for delivering individual treatment, but has long been criticised as overly cumbersome for dentists and confusing for patients.

A new process could see more of the costs laid at the door of patients.

The British Dental Association (BDA) wrote to the Scottish Government about the need for more funding.

David McColl, chairman of the BDA’s Scottish Dental Practice Committee told the Reporter: “The future of Scotland’s dental services still hangs in the balance.

“Dentists can only see a fraction of the patients they saw pre-Covid, and with the backlog of treatment it will take us at least six months to a year to catch up.

Staff are stressed and anxious and facing information overload from all quarters. What they need is definitive guidance and support.

“We are inching towards a two-tier system, where many types of routine care remain unavailable on the NHS. This isn’t sustainable.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the broken model at the heart of NHS dentistry. It’s the right time for ministers to look afresh and provide firm foundations and fair funding for services millions depend on.”

Dumbarton MSP Jackie Baillie said: “As part of the Scottish Government’s plan to rebuild and remobilise our NHS, it is vital that there is specific focus given to the future funding of dentistry.

“Neither our dentists or patients should have to suffer hikes in fees because of underfunding and I will argue for a fully funded and protected dental health service going forward.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We understand these are uncertain times for NHS dentistry and have put in place financial support measures intended to ensure that dental contractors providing NHS services are well placed to emerge from the current restrictions.

“As well as deploying the Scottish Government budget for NHS dental services, we are investing an additional £2.75million per month. This means we are making exceptional payments to the value of £12m per month to support NHS dental incomes.”