The People in the Bristol Queue

The People in the Bristol Queue

According to stereotype, the British love to queue. Whether it is for bargains in the sales, tickets to centre court at Wimbledon, or to see a celebrity in the flesh, forming an orderly line is a national talent. It may say something about stoicism and a sense of fair play.

Queues for basic dental care paint a much less flattering picture, but what drives someone to spend hours in the cold and damp by a busy road, in the hope of booking a dental appointment?

In a recent report on the NHS dental access crisis, the Guardian took a different approach to publishing another interview with health ministers, NHS England, or even the BDA. Instead they spoke to people queuing to be seen at the reopened practice in St Pauls, Bristol. As previously reported in GDPUK (  and the practice was one of the 85 marked for closure or disposal by BUPA Dental in 2023, shutting its doors that June. A very well organised campaign followed to restore it, culminating in a local dental group agreeing to reopen the practice in February 2024.

Any questions about the level of demand were answered by the massive queues that soon appeared. The second new patient through the door was Carol Sherman, 59, who lives opposite the practice. She had joined the queue at 5am.

“I was desperate and I thought I wanted to stand a chance to get it,” she said. “I thought the only thing to do is to get there.” The year before, just as the practice had closed, she started experiencing, “excruciating pain” in her teeth. Left with no choice but to go private, she had spent upwards of £500 on two fillings. She did not want to have to spend that again.

Staff at the practice were overwhelmed by 1,500 applicants in two days. On the third day after reopening, the practice’s door was closed with a notice saying that it had stopped enrolling patients, and only those who had appointments would be admitted.

Sisi Hussein, 39, had been behind Sherman in the queue, and waited in line for five hours before getting registered at 1pm. A St Pauls resident, she was an NHS patient under the previous Bupa ownership but since the closure she had moved between private practices seeking help. Hussein had spent about £600 on care for herself and her 16-year-old son. Faced with persistent pain in a tooth, she was left at a loss. “I just couldn’t afford it, I’d already spent all my money at the dentist,” she said.

Previously working as a cleaner at a bowling alley, she is on universal credit after tripping on a pavement and injuring her foot. She is also on a waiting list for physiotherapy so she can return to work.

Later on Monday, Rose Robinson, 47, from a neighbouring suburb, had arrived at 11am and spent three hours in the queue before being told by police to go home after a fight broke out further up the line.  Determined to get a place, the healthcare assistant returned the next day, when a ticketing system had been introduced.

A patient of the practice since childhood she said: “I literally can’t afford private prices. The same as many other people. So I was just praying that nothing would go wrong with my teeth.” Something did. One of her back teeth had fractured, leaving her in pain on biting. “I’m just avoiding chewing on that side completely,” she said.

Jen Witts, 43, had waited in the drizzle and cold for about two hours. She too was an NHS patient under the previous ownership and was able to get an appointment on the last day before it closed. The dentist identified a loose tooth, which they were unable to fix on the day, and it had remained loose. “I literally thought, I’m never going to have an NHS dentist again in my life,” she said. “It’s been a real cause of stress and worry because I can’t afford private and when I came out I just started crying. I was so overwhelmed.”

There was much praise for the local campaign that had played a large part in making the case for the return of a dental practice to the neighbourhood.

Barbara Cook, a community artist and one of the campaign leads, said: “Campaigning works, it can work. Don’t just be beaten down and think you can’t do anything because now’s the time for us to stand up.” Cook said campaigners were horrified by the closure. “We thought, if we let this go, it will be GPs next. Because we know to get an appointment with a GP is horrendous.”

Cook is now setting her sights on the wider issue. “For me, it’s far from over,” she said. “The battle for dentistry, this is just like it’s only just begun.”


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