THE talking is over, so what now? Health professionals, local councillors and MPs, campaigners and thousands of residents have all given their views on the proposed scheme to add fluoride to Hampshire tap water.
The first consultation of its kind in England since a change in the law over the way fluoridation can be introduced has run for the last three months.
With passions running high on both sides, the debate has raged at Question Time-style events, drop-in roadshows, protest rallies, and in hundreds of Daily Echo column inches.
As the official consultation period ended at midnight last night, nearly 10,000 official responses had been submitted.
But what difference will those opinions make, and how will the final decision be made?
Responsibility for choosing whether nearly 200,000 people in Southampton, Eastleigh, Totton, Netley and Rownhams will receive fluoridated water lies with South Central Strategic Health Authority.
The 12 board members of the body, which oversees the region’s healthcare, will vote on the contentious issue at a special meeting on February 26.
Before that can happen, all the feedback colleced over the last 15 weeks must be analysed.
The responses will be assessed by a statistics expert, an associate of the University of Birmingham.
“This is where the real hard work begins to help the boad make an informed decision,” said Kevin McNamara, from the SHA’s pubic consultation team.
“The SHA takes a step back now while the report is compiled, along with the one based on the ICM phone poll, to be submitted to the board.
“Every single response is looked at and read – they all count.”
Although other areas of Britain are alread fluoridated – most significantly the West Midlands and parts of the north-east – the fluoride consultation has been a voyage into new territory for the SHA.
After being asked by Southampton City Primary Care Trust to look into the viability of a fluoridation scheme, it has had the role of independently overseeing the debate.
For the SHA, that meant trying to come up with a consultation that engaged as many people as possible, and allowed all sides to have their say.
“Because no one’s done this sort of thing for a number of yeas, and not under this legislation, we didn’t know what to expect,” said Mr McNamara. “We can normally phone another area of the NHS and find out what their experience was, but we haven’t been able to do that.”
And the authority has been pleased with the response.
“We’ve spent around 80 hours providing face-to-face opportunities for people to come and find out more. Receiving nealry 10,000 views is a significant response to a consultation.”
The reports should be ready for the SHA board to examine early in the new year, before February’s meeting, which is again breaking new ground for the authority.
It will be the first time the board meets outside SHA headquarters in Newbury, and has just one item on the agenda.
“Given that this is an issue of huge significance for Southampton residents, we felt it was important people were given as much opportunity as possible to see the decision taking place,” said Mr McNamara.
If the board approves the scheme, the first fluoride could be added to water by late 2010.