The Irish Dental Association has said the scheme that provides dental treatment for medical card holders is "on the brink of collapse" and needs to be replaced as a matter of urgency.

IDA Chief Executive Fintan Hourihan said there has been an "unprecedented exodus" of dentists from the scheme in the last year, with many towns now left without a public dental service.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, he said that Health Service Executive data shows 600 dentists withdrew from the scheme over 12 months, with 1,600 taking part at the end of 2019, compared to just 1,200 now.

Mr Hourihan said evidence already indicates that in large towns, including Tralee, Wexford, Portlaoise and Dundalk, there is few, if any, public dentists.

He said reduced spending was one factor in the decision of some to close, along with the higher costs of insurance during the pandemic, a lack of assistance from the State and the delayed arrival of PPE.

He said many dentists will continue to operate solely private practices adding that this "will lead to a bigger divide between those who can and cannot afford dental care" in Ireland.

There are 1.6 million medical card holders entitled to access public dental care, but many of these people will now have to travel further to avail of it, go privately or forgo treatment, which will lead to other issues.

Mr Hourihan called for "a root and branch review" to fix access to dental care.

He also said that dentists are keen to assist in the national Covid-19 vaccination programme and are more than competent and willing to do so, but no negotiations have taken place yet and the IDA is keen that this happens soon.