“We now invest more than £3 billion a year, and there are more than 500 more dentists working in the NHS this year than last year.”
“A [British Dental Association Freedom of Information] request shows Sunak and his colleagues made incorrect statements.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 3 May, Labour MP Mary Kelly Foy asked the Prime Minister about the state of NHS dentistry. In response, Rishi Sunak claimed that there are over 500 more dentists working in the NHS this year than last.
On 23 May, Ms Foy said on Twitter that she now believed Mr Sunak’s claim was incorrect, based on new data obtained by the British Dental Association (BDA) using a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
When we contacted Number 10 to ask about Mr Sunak’s claim, we didn’t get any response. But it appears likely he was actually referring to the number of dentists who performed NHS activity in England in the year to March 2022, which was 539 higher than in the previous year.
While the NHS hasn’t yet published any official figures for the number of dentists “this year”, the figures obtained by the BDA suggest that the total declined in the year to March 2023. The data the BDA obtained under the FOI Act shows a fall of 695 compared to 2021/22, though the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has warned that this figure may be “incomplete”.
In any event, a headcount of the number of dentists doing some NHS work doesn’t tell the full story about NHS dental capacity, given that the proportion of work which dentists may do for the NHS may also vary significantly.
When referring to data, ministers and other politicians should ensure their claims accurately reflect what it shows. This includes being clear about the timeframes they're referring to. Ministers should also correct false or misleading claims made in Parliament as soon as possible in keeping with the Ministerial Code, which states that they should correct “any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”.
Honesty in public debate matters
You can help us take action – and get our regular free email
Different claims with different timeframes
The 3 May wasn’t the first time Mr Sunak has made the claim about there being 500 more NHS dentists. We’ve actually seen him make similar claims in a number of slightly different ways in recent months.
On 10 May and 15 March he said there were 500 more dentists working in the NHS “today”, while on 8 March he said the number of NHS dentists had increased by about 500 “over the last year”.
As discussed above, if Mr Sunak was using the NHS Digital figures then these time frames are not accurate, as the 539 increase was between 2020/21 and 2021/22. Mr Sunak’s 3 May claim that there are over 500 more dentists working in the NHS “this year” is also not correct, as the latest NHS Digital data doesn’t tell us anything about the number of dentists in 2023, or 2022/23.
Full Fact has written to the Prime Minister’s office to ask Mr Sunak to correct his claims.
On at least one occasion, Mr Sunak has made the claim correctly based on the latest NHS Digital data. He told the Commons on 19 April that “there were around 500 more dentists delivering care in the NHS last year than in the previous year”.
The figures obtained by the BDA show that 23,577 dentists performed NHS work in England in 2022/23—down 695 on the 24,272 in 2021/22.
This is data from a FOI request to the NHS Business Service Authority and it is not clear if the numbers will be different from NHS Digital’s annual dental statistics, which are usually published in August.
A DHSC spokesperson said that the BDA analysis may be based on “incomplete data” and may not account for the full financial year because not all dentists may have submitted the necessary data.
Are there ‘more’ dentists than there used to be?
Mr Sunak said on 11 January that “there are now more NHS dentists across the UK”, a claim we have checked before. As we explained in that fact check, there were more dentists doing NHS work across the UK in 2021/22 than the year before, but overall numbers are still lower than pre-pandemic.
Health is also devolved so the UK government is only responsible for health services in England. Overall, NHS Digital data shows the number of dentists in England carrying out NHS work has risen from 22,920 in 2011/12—the furthest back comparable dental statistics go—to 24,272 in 2021/22. When you discount the first year of the pandemic in 2020/21, 2021/2022 saw the lowest number of dentists recorded as working in the NHS in England since 2016/17.
Pre-pandemic there were 24,684 dentists reported as carrying out NHS activity in 2019/20. This then dropped to 23,733 during 2020/21. NHS Digital says that most practices were closed between April and June 2020 and even after re-opening the “increased fallow time between treatments and reduced minimum thresholds for NHS dental activity, potentially mean that not all dental practitioners returned to primary care dentistry during 2020/21”, which may have affected headcount figures.
This suggests that the 539 more dentists carrying out NHS activity in 2021/22 may partly reflect a recovery in the numbers following the first year of the pandemic.
Crucially, the NHS Digital figures only refer to the number of dentists who have carried out some NHS work over the year by headcount—they do not show the number of full-time equivalent dentists, so aren’t necessarily a reliable indicator of overall NHS dental capacity. We’ve been unable to find data on the number of full-time equivalent NHS dentists in England.
Some 26.4 million courses of treatment were delivered in 2021/22. This is more than double the 12 million carried in 2020/21, although dental activity in both years was affected by the pandemic. About 38.4 million were carried out in 2019/20.
Image courtesy of Caroline LM.