£250m locum bill pushing Scottish NHS ‘to brink of meltdown’

Nicola Sturgeon was challenged over the soaring bill for locum doctors in the NHS at First Ministers Questions. Picture: SWNS
Nicola Sturgeon was challenged over the soaring bill for locum doctors in the NHS at First Ministers Questions. Picture: SWNS
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Stretched hospitals have spent nearly £250 million on costly locum doctors and nurses to fill gaps in the rotas, new figures have shown.

Tory leader Ruth Davidson said the services was “on the brink of meltdown” as the bill for agency staff rose by £41m on the previous year.

The soaring demand for services from growing numbers of elderly patients has placed pressure on the NHS, as health boards are forced to rely on locums to cope, despite record numbers of staff working within the NHS.

Doctors leaders reported “serious difficulties” in recruiting and retaining staff, while nursing vacancies have risen for the fifth consecutive year with about 2,500 posts unfilled.

Ms Davidson accused the SNP of poor planning at First Minister’s Questions yesterday.

She said: “We see an NHS which has become so stretched that we are shelling out a quarter of a billion pounds a year on costly locum cover.

“The First Minister is on the slide because instead of rolling up her sleeves she is tearing up her promise not to hold a second referendum.”

She demanded that Ms Sturgeon take personal responsibility for the impact of decisions she made during her time as health secretary.

Ms Davidson told MSPs: “The First Minister won’t admit it, but this in is part due to the failure by this SNP government to manage the NHS properly.

“Four years ago, as health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon cut training places for nurses and midwives. At the time she called it ‘a sensible way forward’.”

Figures obtained by the Conservatives through freedom of information laws found that £248m was spent on locum doctors and nurses in 2015-16 compared to £206m the previous year.

The NHS in Glasgow spent £72m last year on temporary cover, and in Lothian the figure was almost £45m.

In Grampian, the figure almost doubled in the space of 12 months from £10.9m to £18.1m, while in Lanarkshire the increase was £8.5m to £16.1m.

Ms Sturgeon insisted there has been a reduction of more than 60 per cent in agency staff working in the NHS since the SNP came to power in 2007 and the number of qualified nurses and midwives had risen by more than 5 per cent in that time.

The First Minister accepted health boards needed to use agency staff at times to deliver quality care but said ministers are clear that NHS bosses should minimise the use of agency staff.

Staff numbers in the NHS has increased by more than 11,000 since the SNP came to power, including a 25 per cent rise in doctors, she claimed.

Ms Sturgeon added: “Yes, there are challenges in our national health service. That is because of the increasing demand coming from an ageing population. That is why we have pledged record funding for our health service.

“We are transforming primary care, investing more in social care and community care, and expanding elective treatment capacity as well.”

Nursing leaders have previously warned that staff face huge pressure at work and many said they were too busy to care for their patients properly. A recent NHS staff survey found that only a quarter of Scottish nurses and midwives felt there were enough staff to allow them to do their job properly, while official data showed that hundreds of positions have lain empty for more than three months.

Meanwhile the Royal College of Midwives has spoken of a “retirement timebomb” in the professions as older midwives make up a large proportion of the workforce.

One of Scotland’s most senior doctors called for “immediate action” to fill the empty posts permanently and to reduce the burden on struggling staff.

Dr Peter Bennie, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Scotland, said: “We have been warning for some time that the NHS in Scotland is facing serious difficulties in recruiting and retaining doctors and this increase in expenditure on locum staff is further evidence that this problem is a growing one.

“Every vacant post puts more of a burden on already overstretched medical staff and leaves health boards attempting to plug the gaps by trying to secure temporary locum cover.

“The only way that this issue can be tackled in the long-term is by filling vacant posts on a permanent basis.

“To achieve this immediate action must be taken to attract doctors to work in Scotland, ensure that vacant posts are filled and to value and retain those doctors we already have in place.”