Rise in “dental deserts” leaves millions struggling to get NHS dentist appointment

19 Apr 2023

EMBARGO: 00:01 Wednesday 19th April

  • Six in ten areas have seen a rise in the number of people per dentist since 2019

  • Some areas have over 3,000 people per NHS dentist leaving people struggling to get an appointment

  • Lib Dem Leader calls for NHS dentist rescue plan to prevent desperate people resorting to DIY dentistry

Over six in ten local areas in England have seen a rise in the number of people per dentist since 2019, new analysis commissioned by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.

The Commons Library research shows how the rise in “dental deserts” has left people struggling to get an appointment, with some areas now having over 3,000 people for every NHS dentist. 65 of 104 local areas in England have seen the number of people per dentist rise since 2019, the figures show.

Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey will today warn that the dental crisis is leading desperate people to resort to DIY dentistry. He will call for a dental healthcare rescue plan including spending the estimated £400 million of funding for NHS dental services that went unspent this year to boost the number of appointments. The Liberal Democrats are also calling for reforms to the NHS dental contract, additional resources for mobile dental units to visit schools, community centres and care homes, and the removal of VAT on children’s toothbrushes and toothpaste.

North Lincolnshire now has just one NHS dentist for every 3,199 people, more than anywhere else in the country. This is almost three times the number in South Tyneside, which has 1,111 people per NHS dentist. Nationally there are an average of 2,330 people per NHS dentist in England.

Bolton has seen the sharpest rise in people per NHS dentist, with the number rising by 35% since 2019 to 2,044. Other areas with the sharpest increases in population per dentist include Ipswich and East Suffolk (26%), West Suffolk (19%) and Barnsley (13%).

The latest figures show that fewer than one in two (44.8%) children saw an NHS dentist in the last year, while just one third of adults saw an NHS dentist in the last two years.

A poll commissioned by the Liberal Democrats last year revealed a staggering one in five (21%) people who failed to get an NHS dentist appointment in the past year turned to DIY dentistry.

Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey said:

“The staggering rise in dental deserts has left far too many people struggling to get an NHS dental appointment when they need to.

“It is heartbreaking that people are being left waiting in pain for months or even years for the dental care they need. Many are being forced to shell out thousands of pounds on private dental care, while some are even turning in desperation to DIY dentistry.

"This Conservative government has been asleep at the wheel for years and allowed this dental crisis to get worse and worse. We need to see action now to make sure everyone can see a dentist on the NHS when they need to. That must start with investing the cash earmarked for NHS dentistry that has scandalously gone unspent, and reforming the broken system that has driven dentists away from offering NHS appointments.” 


Notes to Editor

Full figures from the House of Commons Library on the number of people per dentist by local area in 2021/22 compared to 2018/19 can be found here. (Original Source: NHS Digital, NHS Dental Statistics).

The Liberal Democrats are calling for an NHS dental healthcare plan to ensure everyone can access affordable dental care when they need to. This would include:

  • Immediately investing the money earmarked for NHS dentistry on boosting the number of appointments. The Health Service Journal has reported that the national dentistry budget is set to be underspent by a record £400m this year.

  • Reforming and increasing funding for the NHS dental services contract, to ensure it encourages and incentivises dentists to take on NHS patients

  • Increasing the number of dentist training places in the UK

  • Additional resources for mobile dental units to visit schools, community centres and care homes

  • The removal of VAT on children’s toothbrushes and children’s toothpaste.

Polling methodology: Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,234 UK adults aged 18+ online between 19th and 21st August 2022. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK by age, sex, region and social grade.

Q2. Which of the following, if any, have you done as a result of not being able to get an NHS dentist appointment in your local area? Base: All respondents who have tried to get an NHS dentist appointment in their local area in the last 12 months but couldn’t get one (n= 533)

Stopped attempting to get an NHS dental appointment altogether 


Paid for private dental treatment 


Delayed seeing a dentist despite suffering with pain 


Carried out dental work on yourself or asked somebody else who is not a dentist to do so (known as ‘DIY dentistry’) 


Travelled a long distance to find an NHS dentist appointment


Other (please specify)


Don’t know


None of the above 





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