Asking HSE dentists to act as Covid-19 vaccinators will result in missed diagnoses and treatments of conditions in children and vulnerable adults, and some will lose "teeth for life", according to the President of the Irish Dental Association.
Speaking at the association's virtual AGM, Dr Anne O'Neill thanked Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly for his recognition of HSE dentists' support of Covid services.
However, Dr O'Neill said: "It would be better to know that they were valued for the dental care they provide.
"My HSE colleagues are stretched Minister, and now they face being requested to leave their dental surgeries again to meet the challenge of vaccinations while they know that irreparable damage is being done in the child population," Dr O'Neill said.
"They are willing and able to meet the challenge of being vaccinators but it is important to state that their absence means a lack of early intervention, a lack of early diagnoses and treatment of dental conditions to both children and vulnerable adults, some of which will result in the loss of teeth for life," Dr O'Neill said.
In a recorded message played to members, the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that at any time during the pandemic it was estimated that a third of HSE dentists worked full-time supporting "broader pandemic issues".
Mr Donnelly commended the dental profession for their "substantial and valuable contribution to the national effort" during the pandemic.
He said that "the legacy of the pandemic" in the form of longer waiting lists for services is an issue for many parts of the health service, including oral healthcare.
"It will require attention, and it will get the attention that it needs and deserves," the Minister said.
He acknowledged that there were also considerable challenges in the provision of oral health services before the pandemic, citing waiting lists for orthodontic services and general anaesthetic, and that these had gotten worse.
"The impact of the pandemic on levels of unmet need is difficult to quantify," he said, adding that it was a "huge concern" for him.
The Irish Dental Association was critical of consultation around the development of the National Oral Health Policy, 'Smile agus Sláinte', which was published in 2019.
Mr Donnelly said that "despite the current public health emergency work to prepare for implantation is being undertaken... and progress is being made" on a number of priority actions.
Its Chief Executive Fintan Hourihan said that "implementation was slow before the pandemic... but it has been completely stalled ever since."
Mr Hourihan said that "with an end to the lockdown now in sight" the association hopes that "not only will there be an early attempt to re-engage" with the policy, "but the opportunity will also be taken by the State to reset the relationships... vital to achieving the many laudable objectives set out in the policy."
Mr Hourihan was critical of what he called the "tardy and inadequate response of the Department of Health to the unprecedented challenges faced by dentists during the pandemic."
He said that there was an absence of trust in the relationship between the Department and the association.
Mr Hourihan said that the Association was prepared "to sit down and build a new relationship" with the Department of Health, but it would insist on "appropriate respect" being shown to it, and that "any threat of criminal prosecution" against members and the association be removed.
He added that the issue of representation rights must be resolved before any discussions take place.
In his recorded message, Mr Donnelly said that he was aware of the issues around the organisation's collective bargaining rights and he had asked Department officials to engage with the Association on this matter.
"I am anxious to ensure that there are no barriers to engagement between the Department and the IDA... I am confident we can make real progress by working together," the Minister said.