The number of nurses and midwives in Scotland rose by just 1 per cent between 2009 and 2015 against the backdrop of soaring demand, according to a critical report by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
Student nurse intake numbers fell by a quarter between 2005/6 and 2012/13, although trainee places have since started to increase.
The report highlights pressures arising from the ageing workforce as more than half of nurses were over 45 last year, compared to 43 per cent in 2006.
RCN Scotland Director Theresa Fyffe said: “The last few years have been characterised by a ‘boom and bust’ approach to nursing workforce planning, with many of our health boards cutting the number of nursing staff, simply to balance their books – and then having to try and recruit more nursing staff as demand for services soared.
“This is no way to run our health services.”
The Scottish Government spent £23 million last year on agency nurses to plug gaps as the latest vacancy rates rose to 4.2 per cent in June.
Ms Fyffe added: “All these factors, as well as the as yet unknown impact of Brexit on international recruitment particularly in the care home sector in Scotland, are contributing to a ‘perfect storm’ for our nursing workforce and, as today’s report says, ‘without sufficient nursing staff and exponentially rising demand, patient care is being put at risk.’”
Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron called on ministers to justify “erratic” hiring patterns and a lack of places for student nurses despite repeated warnings on staffing levels.
He said: “Yet again we have a stark warning on the NHS staffing crisis from those who know best.”
Health Secretary Shona Robison said new workforce planning tools were in place to help health boards plan for their future needs.
She added: “We are committed to training and retaining our nursing staff and we will increase the number of trainee nurses and midwives by 5.6 per cent for 2016/17 – a fourth successive rise.”