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Deal to reopen crucial St Paul’s dentists could be ‘sorted soon’, campaigners say

Hopeful messages emerge at community event hosted by campaigners, with dental care provider in detailed contract discussions with local health bosses that could see services return.

Photo credit: Alexander Turner

Reports

An inner-city Bristol dentist surgery that closed in the summer, depriving thousands of people of care, could reopen “soon”.

That was the message at a community event in St Paul’s last weekend from campaigners, who battled first to save the practice and then to resurrect it.

Amirah Cole, a local Labour councillor close to the campaign, told those gathered despite heavy rain that health chiefs “have found a dentist willing to reopen [the surgery]”. The longstanding service fell victim to nationwide cuts by its last operator BUPA, which closed 85 practices earlier in 2023.

Bristol is one of the worst areas in the country for NHS dentistry availability. Dozens of people answered a callout by the Cable in June to share their fears about how the closure would affect them personally, and worsen health inequalities. Their stories ranged from people draining their savings on private care, to travelling across the country for NHS services or even taking tools to their own mouths.

But on Saturday (28 October) Cole said that Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Integrated Care Board (ICB) was working on a contract with the interested provider, which “could be sorted soon”.

She acknowledged that there was no set timescale being worked to but said a meeting was set to take place on 6 November and that the community “had waited long enough”.

‘Prioritising the community’

While campaigners did not manage to prevent the surgery from closing on 30 June, they scored a success in gaining a seat at the ICB’s table in discussions on its future.

Those discussions, said Tara Miran, one of the lead campaigners, were “focused on talking to the ICB about the details of [the proposed new] contract and who will be the priority patients”.

“We need to meet the community’s needs,” Tara said, adding that she hoped campaigners could work closely on the issue with the new provider.

Tara Miran (L) with Pallie Smart, the associate pro vice-chancellor for civic engagement at Uni of Bristol

While there are many local residents living close to the practice who have been left without services, Tara added that others had moved to distant providers “they can barely get to”, at personal cost and inconvenience. In the summer, some people told the Cable they were having to travel as far as Wales, Oxfordshire or the West Midlands to get an NHS appointment.

Questions remain over whether people who have made these difficult choices will be able to return to the St Paul’s dentists as and when it reopens. The process should be made easier by the fact that BUPA agreed to leave equipment in situ at the surgery – a further victory achieved by campaigners.

Another of the residents who have spearheaded the campaign, Barbara Cook, paid tribute to what had been achieved, but said there was a risk of there being a “real scramble” to gain access to a reopened practice. “It’s all reliant on one dentist [provider],” she added.

A spokesperson for the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire ICB said the organisation was “continuing to make positive progress to enable continued access to dental care in the St Paul’s area and are currently working through procurement options.

“We expect this to conclude soon,” the spokesperson added, without providing further details.

Wider impact

Beyond the local area, the community’s efforts to prevent the end of dental care in St Paul’s has also been providing inspiration to other groups.

“The dream is to roll out the campaign elsewhere”, Tara Miran said. “Other local councillors have been asking questions” around whether [services can be returned] to other inner-city areas such as Lawrence Hill, she added.

Meanwhile Thangam Debonnaire, the Labour MP for Bristol West, who spoke at the weekend’s event, told the Cable the St Paul’s campaign and others like it had had a “big impact” on the party’s recent promises to tackle the national dental crisis.

“If we have a change of government, we will increase the number of dentists and the number of appointments -especially emergency appointment for children and those who are more vulnerable,” she said in a speech to residents.

If elected, leader Keir Starmer has made a series of pledges – including around reforms to the NHS contract, the mechanism via which dentists are paid for publicly-funded work.

In 2006, the final Blair government changed the NHS funding formula for dentists. Since then they have been paid for whole courses of treatment rather than individual procedures, making the work less attractive.

While the current Tory government says it is making reforms, the British Dental Association has dismissed these as “modest, marginal changes that will not fix the rotten foundations this service is built on”.

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