The dental crisis in County Durham is set to worsen, as another practice announced the intention not to renew its NHS contract. 

Around 3,000 patients in Seaham will be forced to go elsewhere for urgent and routine NHS dental care or pay for private treatment, when the Seaham Smiles practice changes later this year. It means thousands of people across County Durham will have been in a similar situation since April 2023. 

Health officials say the crisis has been caused by dental services struggling to recover from the impact of covid, while there have also been significant challenges with the recruitment and retention of dentists. Some providers are unable to deliver their full commissioned capacity and has lead to widespread recognition that the national dental contract requires reform

The number of contracts handed back - when a dentist decides to stop delivering NHS services - in the North East and North Cumbria (NENC) NHS area has increased from three in 2020 to 14 in 2023-24 to date. 


This has heightened the issue of people accessing NHS dentists – and areas of particular challenge include Darlington and parts of County Durham. 

Latest figures show 11,315 appointments have been commissioned in County Durham for 2023-24 and 2,079 in Darlington. 

Up to two new contracts are planned for County Durham and one for Darlington, but three practices have left their NHS contracts in the past year, with another set to end in March. 

NHS Contracts handed back since 1 April 2023, as of January 15: 

  • Seaham Smiles (Dr N Suggett and Dr B Suggett) - ending on March 31
  • Novident Willington (Mr Aggarwal) -  ended on April 30 2023
  • Bishop Auckland Partnership - ended on June 30 2023
  • Oasis Dental Care, Shildon - ended on June 30 2023

The Burgess & Hyder dental practice in Darlington, at Firthmoor Community Centre, closed on March 31 2023. 

The government’s recent announcement of its Dental Recovery Plan is good news, say health officials in the region, who hope it will help alleviate some of the existing pressures. One-off payments of £20,000 are to be awarded to 240 dentists for working in under-served communities for at least three years, according to the plans

Sarah Burns, Joint Head of Integrated Strategic Commissioning at NENC NHS, said: “We haven’t had the detail of what will apply at a local level but it is well received. We know we have some under-served areas in County Durham, so it should benefit us.”

But councillor Tony Stubbs, of Aycliffe North and Middridge, warned that the situation is likely to get even worse, as NHS practices see more benefits in going private.

He said: “I feel that the dentists have already decided the future, whatever we try and do is a lost cause. I have tried to get a dentist appointment and have been told to phone back in March. 

“Practices have decided that they can make a lot more money by going private - the people are willing to pay it - and there’s nothing the NHS can do about it. Is there a way out of this mess, which seems to be irretrievable?”

And Weardale county councillor, Anita Savory, warned that families are already isolated and suffer from a lack of available public transport  before even contemplating a dentist appointment. 

In a direct plea to NHS officials, she said: If people don’t drive they would be depending on neighbours to get them to appointments or a taxi, which they probably can’t afford. The hurdles are great. 

“Please look at dental services within the rural communities.”

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Key advice for patients 

  • Patients are not registered with a dentist in the same way as GP practices – you can contact any NHS dental practice to seek access to dental care. 
  • Dental practices are encouraged to prioritise patients for treatment based on clinical need and urgency. Appointments for some routine treatments, such as dental check-ups, may still be delayed
  • If you develop an urgent dental issue telephone your regular dental practice (or any NHS practice if you don’t have a regular dentist).
  • When you ring the practice, fully explain the nature of your dental problem so that the urgency of your treatment need can be determined. 
  • If the practice is unable to offer an appointment because their NHS urgent access slots have already been taken up, they will advise you to ring another NHS dental practice, or call 111.