Nursing vacancies 'at heart' of looming NHS Scotland winter crisis

Scotland’s nursing workforce crisis “is at the heart of the challenges” facing the NHS, according to a nursing union, after official figures revealed the scale of the pressures facing the healthcare system ahead of winter.

Data from Public Health Scotland shows the number of beds occupied by people who no longer require acute hospital care are at the highest level since 2016, with almost 1,900 people waiting to be discharged from hospital.

District nursing services play a key role in supporting people to return home from hospital and in preventing hospital admissions in the first place, but the vacancy rate for district nursing reached 16 per cent at the end of September.

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Figures published by the Care Inspectorate and Scottish Social Services Council in November showed 60 per cent of care services that employ nurses reported vacancies. The rate of working-time-equivalent nursing vacancies for these services was 16.2 per cent.

A nurse helps an elderly patient. Picture: Getty Images

Not being able to discharge patients into community care has a significant impact on Scotland’s healthcare system, as the lack of available beds in acute hospitals affects emergency departments.

Less than 68 per cent of people were assessed, treated, admitted or discharged within the Scottish Government’s four-hour target and more than 6,800 people spent more than 12 hours in an accident-and-emergency (A&E) department in October.

Now NHS Scotland workforce statistics show the number of nursing and midwifery vacancies has increased to over 6,300 at the end of September, representing a vacancy rate of 9 per cent across Scotland.

Colin Poolman, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland, said: “Scotland’s nursing workforce crisis is at the heart of the challenges facing our health and social care services. We simply don’t have the nursing workforce we need, and it is patients and families who are suffering.

"Many of the hospital capacity problems are a result of a lack of health and social care resources within our communities. For example, district nursing teams are key to providing care for people at home, preventing admission to hospital and supporting those who are in hospital to return home safely and quickly.

“Our previous warnings have not been listened to. We must do more to value and retain our existing experienced nursing workforce and to attract the workforce of the future – fair pay is a fundamental part of this.

“Scotland needs an open and honest discussion about the level of investment required to meet growing demand, develop new ways of working and ensure we have the workforce we need to deliver safe and effective care across our hospitals and communities.”

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The crisis in nursing vacancies is also being seen in general practice. In November, the Scottish Government’s failure to retain and recruit GPs led to doctors implementing “never-before-seen” emergency measures in surgeries, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland.

Dr Chris Williams, the joint chair of Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland, called on the Government to give “purposeful and simultaneous attention” to the “profound issues of workload, workforce, and welfare within general practice”.

It comes as thousands of ambulance workers and other NHS staff are set to strike on December 21 in England and Wales in a row over pay.. The strike will happen a day after members of the RCN stage their second walkout, also over pay.

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