Scots NHS ‘staffing crisis’ as thousands of nurses quit

Shona Robison, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Shona Robison, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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The number of nurses leaving the NHS in Scotland has reached a new high prompting fears of a “staffing crisis” in hospitals.

More than 4,300 nurses quit the service last year, it has emerged, while long-term consultant vacancies are also on the rise. The news was among a raft of gloomy NHS statistics which also showed more than 580 operations were cancelled in April because hospitals could not cope, longer waits in hard-pressed hospital emergency departments and fresh concerns over mental health treatment delays.

Health Secretary Shona Robison insisted the NHS workforce in Scotland is at “historically high levels”.

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Spending on bank and agency nurses to plug gaps jumped to a record £175.7 million last year.

But the figures released yesterday show there were 4,324 nursing and midwifery departures from the NHS north of the Border in 2017/18, confirming an increasing trend from 2011/12 when 3,100 left.

Spending on bank and agency nurses to plug gaps jumped to a record £175.7 million last year.

Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said the “bottom line is Scotland does not have the nursing staff it needs”.

She added: “Today’s statistics paint a clear picture that the challenges around the nursing workforce have never been greater and nursing­ ­staffing for safe and effective care must be a priority. RCN members – the nurses and health care support workers on the frontline – tell us that there isn’t enough of them to do their job properly, a view reinforced in the recent NHS Scotland iMatter results which revealed two-thirds of respondents said there wasn’t enough of them to provide safe, effective care. In spite of more nursing staff being in post, the vacancy rate remains unchanged and number of long-term vacancy is up significantly on last year.”

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Latest workforce figures from the Scottish Government, adjusted to take account of part-time workers show 2,812.7 of nursing and midwifery posts were vacant as of 31 March along with 422.3 medical and dental posts.

Vacancy rates for nurses and midwives remain unchanged at 4.5 per cent but, of these, 852.5 have lain empty for more than three months, up 27.1 per cent.

Robison last month announced a new bill to ensure health boards and care providers have suitable staffing in place.

The medical and dental consultant vacancy rate is unchanged at 7.5 per cent but those vacant for six months or more is up 23.6 per cent to 253.9 posts in the same period.

Overall NHS staff numbers have risen marginally by 0.3 per cent to 163,061 in the year but this six-year growth trend is slowing due to numbers of leavers increasing while joiners remain steady.

A Scottish Government national target for sickness absence of 4 per cent or less again failed to be met as absence rates rose from 5.2 per cent in 2016/17 to 5.39 per cent in 2017/18.

Simon Barker, chair of BMA Scotland’s consultants committee, said: “The lack of substantive progress that is being made in filling these vacancies and ensuring that Scotland’s NHS has the staff it needs is increasingly concerning.

“Every post in the NHS that lies empty makes it more difficult to deliver high-quality care to patients and adds to the pressure facing staff left covering the gap created by the vacancy.

“Demands on the NHS are already at unprecedented levels and the struggles it is facing are only made worse by not having the medical staff in place that the NHS knows is required.”

Opposition parties were quick to lay the blame for the staffing crisis at the door of the Scottish Government.

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “These statistics paint a picture of a health service that is struggling on a number of fronts.

“Nurses and midwives are leaving in record numbers, those remaining are more likely to be off sick, and spending on expensive agency and bank nurses continues to spiral.

“Hardly a week goes by when the SNP’s shocking management of the NHS isn’t exposed.”

Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health, Anas Sarwar, said that the SNP’s NHS staffing crisis was “spiralling out of control” with a huge spike in unfilled posts for consultants and almost 3,000 vacancies in nursing and midwifery.

He added: “These failures lie at the door of Bute House.

“Nicola Sturgeon cut the number of training places for nurses when she was Health Secretary in 2012.

“A recent survey of NHS staff found only around a third of staff believe there are enough of them to do their jobs properly. The result of that is patients not getting the care they need in time.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “NHS Scotland’s workforce has increased by over 10 per cent under this government to historically high levels and has risen by almost 500 in the past year alone to nearly 140,000.

“To help meet the demands the NHS faces we’re putting record investment into our health service and legislating to ensure we have the right staff with the right skills in the right place.”