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Concerns over resumption of dental services must be addressed

Patients hoping to access routine dental treatment for the first time in four months will be dismayed to hear that the planned resumption of services next week may be affected by shortages of vital protective equipment.

At the start of the lockdown, dental surgeries were closed due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus through certain treatments, known as aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs) which include fillings, root canals and scaling and polishing.

Instead, patients needing emergency treatment were referred to regional urgent dental care centres, five of which were set up across the north.

As part of the phased reopening of services, the care centres are set to shut down with dental surgeries due to reopen on Monday July 20, offering non-urgent treatments including AGPs.

However, dentists have highlighted their concerns over the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) masks which are required by staff.

There are more than 370 dental practices in the north with 1,147 dentists registered to carry out NHS treatment.

The British Association of Private Dentistry in Northern Ireland says that the actual workforce, including dentists, nurses, hygienists and therapists, could number around 4,000, all of whom need to be fit-tested for masks.

According to an open letter from the association to the Stormont health committee, around 400 dentists have been fit-tested but it is not clear they will be able to secure a supply of the same mask.

''It appears to be an impossible task for practices to acquire and fit-test all their staff prior to 20th July,'' said the letter.

The association goes on to warn that with the planned closure of urgent care centres, there could be a 'gaping hole' in services.

It is not just the availability of PPE that is a concern but also the costs involved, which have spiralled to the point where dentists are seriously worried about the financial impact, with many suffering work-related stress.

The Department of Health has acknowledged the 'logistical challenges' of providing a large consignment of PPE to practices but says deliveries will now start on July 20.

It is alarming that at this stage of the pandemic there are still difficulties around the supply of PPE to healthcare professionals.

Dental surgeries need to get up and running again but that can only be done when all the necessary safety measures are in place.

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