The number of unfilled consultancy positions surged from 4.7 per cent to 6.9 per cent during the last year, official Scottish health service figures show. That is equivalent to one in 15 senior doctors.
Ministers were warned the NHS would come under growing strain and the British Medical Association (BMA) described the rise in vacancies as “extremely worrying”.
Nursing and midwifery vacancies also increased from 2.9 per cent to 3.1 per cent during the same year-long period.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland warned a failure to fill the posts was leading to “less time to care for patients”. However, the Scottish Government said the vacancies were due to an increase in recruitment to the NHS, with overall staff numbers reaching a “record high”.
The number of staff working in Scotland’s NHS increased to the equivalent of 135,881 full-time workers – a rise of almost 2 per cent in the last year, according to the new figures.
Ministers hailed the figure and said an NHS workforce of more than 135,000 was a 7 per cent increase from 2006 – a year before the SNP came to power.
The Scottish Government also said the number of qualified nurses and midwives had increased to an all-time high – up 4.4 per cent – with 1,800 more full-time equivalent nurses and midwives in place since 2006.
However, the BMA and RCN claimed the latest findings showed vital NHS posts were being left unfilled for lengthy periods. Dr Nikki Thompson, chair of the BMA’s Scottish consultants committee, said: “This is an extremely worrying situation. Doctors are working under significant pressure and are increasingly having to cover gaps where vacancies are unfilled. We cannot continue to run with this degree of strain on the system.”
RCN Scotland director Theresa Fyffe highlighted evidence from Holyrood’s health committee, which suggested some NHS recruitment of staff was deliberately delayed or left unfilled to deliver savings. She said: “Many have been vacant for three months or more.”
Health secretary Alex Neil insisted the SNP had delivered an overall increase in NHS staff and the quality of patient care.