Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of a “spectacular error of judgment” for cutting the number of student nurses while Health Secretary, quadrupling the number of unfilled nursing posts and putting NHS staff under unprecedented pressure.
Figures show the number of nursing and midwifery vacancies in NHS Scotland has risen by 353 per cent since 2011, when training places began being cut.
The Royal College of Nursing said the record-breaking number of vacancies showed ministers had “failed to future-proof the workforce” and warned patient care was suffering.
The latest official figures put the number of vacancies at 2,789 in 2016, or 4.5 per cent of all NHS nursing jobs, with 826 remaining unfilled for three months or more. The SNP inherited a vacancy rate of 3.5 per cent in 2007.
The intake of nursing and midwifery students dropped from 3,505 in 2010/11 to 2,713 in 2012/13, and while student nursing places have climbed for six years, they will only surpass 2011 levels next year.
Nursing leaders warned that pressure on the NHS has yet to peak. The number of nurses leaving is almost 50 per cent higher than the number of trainees joining, and Scotland has seen the biggest fall in registered nurses anywhere in the UK. There were 1,200 fewer registered nurses in March 2017 than three years earlier.
The SNP government pushed ahead with the cuts at the start of its first time as a majority government.
Announcing a cut of 300 student nursing places in 2012, Sturgeon said the reduction was a “sensible way forward”.
She said: “The intake sets a balance between ensuring the right number of nurses and midwives for the future while also minimising the risk of oversupply and graduate unemployment.”
Norman Provan, the associate director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: “In the last 12 months we have seen record levels of nursing and midwifery vacancies across the NHS in Scotland.
“The high vacancy rate is an indication that the Scottish Government and health boards have failed to future-proof the workforce and are constantly relying on nurses working additional hours to cover shortages of staff.
“Without strategic long-term planning and ensuring nursing staff are paid fairly for the work they do, patients won’t get the care they need.”
Provan said the RCN was working with the Scottish Government to guarantee better workforce planning as part of upcoming legislation on safe staffing in the NHS.
Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar said: “Our hospitals simply don’t have enough staff – and that is a consequence of decisions made by Nicola Sturgeon when she was Health Secretary.
“It was a spectacular error of judgment that has piled the pressure on our hospitals and let patients down.”
An additional 364 student nursing places were announced last month.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our commitment to supporting and sustaining the workforce also includes widening access to training, attracting back former registrants and, unlike England, we have retained bursaries and free tuition for nursing and midwifery students.
“We are also committed to creating an estimated 2,600 new training places over this parliament, recruiting and retaining the next generation of staff as well as enshrining safe staffing in law and placing our innovative nursing and midwifery workload tools on a statutory footing.”