The Scottish Government has been urged to act on NHS staffing levels as new figures show a drop in the number of nurses and midwives.
Official statistics indicate the health service had the whole-time equivalent (WTE) of 61,775 nurses and midwives at the end of September – a decrease of 2.2% on the previous quarter.
At the same time, there were also 3,293.5 vacant WTE posts in this part of the NHS, prompting nursing leaders to warn of the “dangers” when staffing levels fall too low.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland said the figures mean more than 5% of nursing and midwifery posts are unfilled – despite third-year nursing students joining the workforce early to help support the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
While RCN Scotland welcomed the £500 one-off “thank-you” payment First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced for full-time NHS and care workers, it stressed this will “not help to address the long-term issues that impact on recruitment and retention of nursing staff”.
Eileen McKenna, associate director of RCN Scotland, said: “The pandemic has impacted on all aspects of nursing.
“No member of nursing staff has been left untouched across our health and care services.
“We know the positive impact effective nurse staffing levels has on outcomes for patients and residents and the dangers when they fall too low.
“We need to ensure Scotland has the nursing workforce it needs, that nursing is seen as an attractive and rewarding career and that policies and working conditions support nursing staff to stay in this safety critical profession.”
According to the latest data, the whole-time equivalent of 146,630.9 people were working in the NHS in Scotland at the end of September.
While this total is up by 3.7% on 2019 and 8.6% higher than a decade ago, the total was 0.5% down in the most recent quarter.
Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “Protecting and growing the NHS workforce has never been more important.
“Under the SNP, vacancies in the health service remain too high and must be urgently addressed.”
Ms Lennon said frontline staff were reporting “high levels of stress and burnout” before Covid-19 hit due to “underinvestment in our NHS”.
She added: “The Scottish Government must urgently address workforce issues in the interests of patients and the staff we all rely on.”
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “NHS Scotland’s staffing levels have increased by over 5,000 whole-time equivalent in the last year, following eight consecutive years of growth.
“This increase includes a 3.6% growth in medical and dental consultants and a 2.9% growth in our nursing and midwifery workforce.
“These increases demonstrate our commitment to workforce sustainability and growth, whilst also reflecting the need to increase staffing to manage the impact of Covid.
“The Scottish Government has provided an additional £1.1 billion to NHS health boards and integration authorities to meet the costs of responding to the pandemic this year, including additional staffing requirements.”
Ms Freeman added: “As part of our response to Covid-19, up to 64 additional medical speciality training posts are being created with £8.5 million funding over the next three years in areas vital to our ongoing Covid response, such as intensive care medicine, public health medicine, medical microbiology and virology.
“Ten additional radiology posts will also be created, as part of our commitment to expand radiology training posts by 50 over a five year period.
“As we remobilise NHS services, we must keep looking to the future and plan ahead for the next generation of Scotland’s doctors.
“I am grateful to all those applying for new and existing posts in these challenging times and to all the frontline workers who continue to support those who are undergoing training during this crisis.”