General dental practitioner representative Dave Cottam demands that the Government ensures dentists have access to the flu jab, as well as any new COVID-19 vaccine, to protect both themselves and their patients.
On the cusp of flu season and during a global pandemic there should be no debate as to whether dentists are frontline healthcare professionals eligible for vaccinations. Yet, that is exactly the position we find ourselves in. The Government's approach to vaccinations for healthcare staff has excluded dentists and left us having to fight for inclusion. While a COVID-19 vaccine is still a long way off, this is a battle that we need to win now for dentists and their teams.
We have put our case in a letter to Secretary of State Matt Hancock. Dentists are frontline healthcare professionals and we must be acknowledged as such. This is about our equality and our safety.
There are three particularly concerning aspects of this issue which have outlined our case.
1. A bureaucratic 'error'
A few weeks back NHS colleagues in England received a welcome letter addressed to “All NHS frontline workers.” It encouraged readers to sign up in droves to the free NHS flu vaccination programme.
The message acknowledged that "flu can have serious and even fatal consequences, especially for our most vulnerable patients, such as young children, pregnant women and the elderly. Therefore, vaccination of healthcare workers is a critical part of the NHS' flu prevention strategy."
The logic was impeccable, save the fact it had been sent by mistake. This newfound concern for the workforce - and the millions we treat - was simply an administrative error. NHS England duly confirmed there would be no extension of the programme to cover GDPs.
2. Buying your own is not an option
The response from some colleagues may be “fair, enough, we’ll buy our own.” If only it were so simple.
Demand for the jab has understandably skyrocketed during the pandemic, and leading pharmacies have already suspended bookings.
The result is that a service - that is already struggling to meet demand - is heading into winter with a workforce that has been afforded little protection.
The underlying problem is greater still. It’s a collective failure to take a consistent approach to all ‘key workers’ in healthcare. It’s the same flawed logic that saw dental staff facing huge barriers accessing childcare during lockdown after failures to explicitly reference us in key worker lists.
NHS dentists are frontline workers. The devolved governments have all recognised this. When it comes to flu jabs, the risks stay the same, regardless of your postcode.
However, budgets in England are now set and procurement is complete. This means that flu season will inevitably add to the disruption practices are facing.
3. A new approach for a new vaccine
While a COVID-19 vaccine may still be in development, clarity on access is needed now.
latest interim advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been clear: health and social care workers should receive priority access, if one is authorised for use in the UK.
Quite rightly care home residents and staff are at the top of their list, followed by health professionals on the front line.
This time there can be no ambiguity over the status of dentists and dental team members - in both NHS and private settings.
This is about equality. In the last election we made clear
dentistry can no longer remain the missing piece in health policy. It is on this basis that we have set out
our case on that basis to Secretary of State Matt Hancock. We need written assurances that we won’t see more of the same.
Healthcare workers should be at the front of the queue for a future vaccine - and there must be no exceptions. There can be no repeat of the debacle over flu jabs and ‘key worker' status. All dentists - both NHS and private - are frontline health professionals.
Together with our teams we need protection so we can keep providing an essential service to the patients that need us.
Officials need to start applying their own logic to dentists and their staff. Failure to do so will only hurt our teams, as well as the millions of people desperate to access our services.
Chair, General Dental Practice Committee