The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on dental care has been laid bare by new figures revealing a slump in treatments delivered to Lincolnshire patients.
The British Dental Association said the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding problems in NHS dentistry, with millions of appointments lost due to ongoing infection control measures.
NHS Digital data reveals 172,000 dental treatments were given to NHS patients in Lincolnshire between June 2020 and March this year – a 67% drop from 524,000 in the same period the previous year.
Among these treatments, 41,100 were delivered to children, down 70% from 136,000 in 2019-20.
Dental practices were told to halt all routine dental care from March 25 until June 8 last year, when they reopened with strict infection control rules due to Covid-19.
These included leaving time after certain procedures and social distancing requirements.
In January, the Government told NHS dentists they should deliver 45% of their pre-pandemic activity, rising to 60% in April.
But the BDA said capacity across dental services remains low, with around half the NHS practices in England not meeting targets.
Shawn Charlwood, chairman of the BDA's general dental practice committee, said: "Millions are still missing out on dental care, and patients will be paying the price for years to come, adding that the target-based approach is "driving low morale" among staff.
"Dentists in England have had capacity slashed by pandemic restrictions and need help to get patients back through their doors.
"Sadly, while every other UK nation has committed funds, Westminster chose to impose targets that thousands of practices are now struggling to hit.
"But even before Covid there simply wasn't enough NHS dentistry to go round."
Across England, there were 23,700 NHS dentists in 2020-21, 951 fewer than the year before – the first drop in four years.
Within the NHS Lincolnshire CCG, the health body covering Lincolnshire, the number of dentists offering NHS treatment dropped by 30, to 292 over the same period.
Sara Hurley, the NHS's chief dental officer, said urgent care provision had risen to pre-pandemic levels since December.
She added: “It’s inevitable that the upheaval caused by Covid has disrupted some people’s dental care, but dentists have been prioritising treatment for patients in urgent need, in part through the rapid establishment of 600 urgent dental centres – with millions still getting care through the pandemic."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The Government continues to support the dental sector and we are working closely with the health service to increase access to NHS dental care as fast as possible.”