Miles Briggs: Radical thinking to solve NHS staff crisis

There are many nursing vacancies in Scottish hospitals. Photograph: monkeybusinessimages
There are many nursing vacancies in Scottish hospitals. Photograph: monkeybusinessimages
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In recent weeks we’ve seen a number of indicators showing just how dire the NHS recruitment situation in Scotland has become.

Consultants, nurses and GPs are all lacking.

But this isn’t just a bad-news statistic for the SNP.

Scotland on Sunday repor­ted last week that the situation had become so bad among specialists at St John’s Hospital in Livingston that workers had genuine concerns for patient safety.

NHS Lothian has since gone some way to addressing this in the short-term, although paediatric consultants hot-desking across the Lothians is hardly a permanent remedy.

The SNP hasn’t trained enough nurses – that much is clear.

But any change made to that will take years to come to fruition. We need more immediate answers.

That’s why it’s time for ministers to think out the box and, indeed, out of the continent.

There are thousands of UK doctors and nurses working across the world, many of whom are concentrated in Australia. Anecdotally, people remark there are more Scottish staff on some Australian wards than treating patients here.

We need to say to these medical professionals: “Here is your one-way ticket and a job, come home and work for our NHS, because we really, really need you.”

The recruitment drive and plane tickets, and indeed any money associated with relocation, may require some funding in the short-term. But the long-term benefits of this would easily outweigh that initial spend.

Hopefully for some who emigrated, this is the excuse they’ve been waiting for to come home.

There will be flexibility in the Scottish Government’s budget to do this, as we’ve seen teachers offered golden handshakes to work in some more remote parts of Scotland.

And it’s flexibility that we desperately need.

Last year, the taxpayer spent £158 million funding bank and agency nurses to plug gaps in our hospitals.

This points to a major staffing issue, not helped by sickness levels in excess of 5 per cent, and not a single Scottish health board meeting the 4 per cent standard set down by the Scottish Government.

Thanks to ISD Scotland – the body which collects and publishes health data – we learned last week that there are 164 consultant vacancies in Scotland which have lain unfilled for six months or more.

That is an astonishing statistic, and makes you wonder how on earth hospitals are able to operate on such reduced numbers over a lengthy period of time.

The picture wasn’t much better for nurse and midwife vacancies, with hundreds of openings across Scotland.

And senior doctors warned last week that we need more than 800 new GPs to enter the system to make the set-up bearable for patients who just want an appointment in a reasonable time-frame without having to wait weeks or being rushed out the door.

I took the opportunity to ask Nicola Sturgeon about these problems at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, and urged her to arrange a staffing summit where ideas like the Australian recruitment drive could be debated.

She sidestepped it in characteristic FMQ style, but something has to be done before things get worse, particularly with so many nurses predicted to retire over the next decade.

We supported the recent decision by health secretary Shona Robison to undertake a wholesale review of which NHS targets should remain, and which ones should be dropped. We came up with it in our manifesto for the Holyrood elections, after all.

It’s a sensible approach and one which should benefit staff and patients.

But one thing the Scottish Government will never get away with is scrimping on staffing, and nor should it try.

The population is ageing, hospitals are getting busier and staff are feeling more under strain than ever.

It’s the SNP’s responsibility to sort that out.”

Miles Briggs is Scottish Conservative public health spokesman and MSP for Lothians