COVID tooth extraction backlog: Fears for kids’ teeth as hospital procedures plummet during pandemic

The number of teeth extractions – which have to take place in a hospital under general anaesthetic - due to decay carried out has tumbled to record lows, amid fears many are missing out on vital treatment, councils say today.

A child having a tooth removed

The Local Government Association said the number of teeth extractions of children between the ages of 0-19 carried out during the pandemic in 2020/21 dropped by over 55 per cent compared with the previous year. This was an all-time record low figure for extractions, with around 35,000 fewer procedures taking place compared with previous years.

The data, published by the Office of Health Disparities and analysed by the LGA, also reveals that areas with high levels of deprivation have three times the amount of tooth removals than areas that are more affluent. Oral health inequality is expected to grow owing to the scale of backlogs in primary care, which limit the chance to catch problems early.

Councils across the country are running programmes to promote good oral health and prevent dental related problems, particularly among children. While councils and their directors of public health hope there has been a downward trend in those requiring procedures as a result, they are warning that the dramatic reduction in numbers indicates many of these procedures were delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic with fewer people attending hospital. Councils are calling for a full disclosure on waiting times for these procedures alongside a properly funded plan to address the backlog, with fears that tens of thousands of children are being left in pain as well as facing difficulties learning, eating, talking and sleeping.  The LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, is urging the Government to recommit to measures designed to combat obesity and diet related ill health in the upcoming Autumn Statement. This includes the continuation of the sugar levy as well as reinvesting the proceeds from it into council-run initiatives to boost physical activity. Councils are calling on the Government to also use the Autumn Statement to provide long term funding for local public health services, which play a vital role in preventing future health problems, including supporting dental hygiene among school age children, and takes pressure away from our overstretched health and social care system.

Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said: “These statistics show a dramatic fall in teeth extractions due to the pandemic, particularly affecting more deprived areas and it is alarming that there may be children whose teeth are being left to rot as hospitals work through a growing backlog of procedures. “It is deeply worrying that the type of dental treatment required is beyond the capacity of a local dentist, due to the severity of the tooth decay, and as a result has to be done in a hospital. “Treatment and prevention are two sides to the same coin. The Government must use the upcoming Autumn Statement to recommit to vital measures to combat childhood obesity and diet related ill health, such as the sugar levy which has helped cut down the consumption of drinks with high sugar content.

“Councils also need full disclosure on waiting times for these procedures alongside a fully costed plan to bring down the hospital backlog.”

Notes to editors

Data on the number of teeth extractions due to decay carried out on 0-19 year olds is collected by the NHS and published by the Office for Health Disparities. The data shows that 22,549 tooth extractions took place in 2020/21, compared with 55,137 carried out in 2019/20.

The LGA collates case studies into council oral health improvement programmes, including the award winning ‘Brent Smiles’ programme: Healthy Smiles” in Brent - A Supervised Tooth brushing Programme in children’s early years settings.