Community dentists finally get new contracts after three years of delay
Health officials have finally been given the green light for a new contract for community dentists - three years after funding was secured, it can be revealed.
Stormont officials had refused to implement the new terms without formal ministerial approval.
However, a deal has now been rubber-stamped that means community dentists here will get the same pay as their counterparts in Britain.
Northern Ireland's community dentists were the last healthcare workers in the UK working under contracts drafted in the 1980s.
The service provides dental care for people of all ages including children and adults with learning disabilities, patients with health problems, phobias, and those unable to leave their homes.
The British Dental Association (BDA) welcomed the move and said it will help to improve the care dentists can deliver to local patients.
Grainne Quinn of the BDA said: "Paralysis at Stormont had left the care for thousands of vulnerable patients at risk.
"Community dentists had been left facing an uncertain future, working to rules drafted three decades ago.
"Finally, after a decade of negotiation, frustration and inertia we've got a result. I am delighted to see this contract finally being implemented within the community dental service in Northern Ireland. Our hard-working staff deserve the improved terms and conditions, and they have been very patient awaiting its implementation.
"We will be looking to trusts to work with the Department of Health, to ensure all staff get their long-awaited back pay in a timely fashion."
Under the old contract agreed in 1988, there was no dedicated training for dentists.
The contract showed its age by referring to the right to compensation arising "in respect of an accident sustained before July 5, 1948".
There was also no nationally agreed appraisal plan to ensure staff were working efficiently.
Under the new contract, specialised training will be provided which will enable dentists to meet the needs of patients with more complex needs.
A new appraisal system is also being specifically designed which will allow training to take place and improve the service for patients.
And a change in working hours will result in more patients being seen.
Ms Quinn said that getting the new contract agreed had been "a surreal experience".
"Since initial agreements in 2016, the BDA have been trying to get this contract implemented, but have been thwarted at all stages with first no minister present, and secondly no government in place," she explained.
"Despite this, we pushed ahead, looking at every opportunity to raise this issue with senior officials to enable us to get to completion this week.
"Our members should never have been put in this position, and they are finally getting recognition for their valuable work."
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for a comment.