Spending on agency nurses in Scotland has leapt from £16m to more than £23m in the past year, the latest figures show.
The statistics published today by NHS Scotland’s Information Services Division (ISD) show the number of permanent nursing and midwifery staff increased slightly by 0.3% to just over 59,370 as of March this year.
“Health boards cannot continue to ratchet up spending on agency nurses”
However, vacancy rates went up by a similar amount – from 3.3% to 3.6% – and the use of agency nursing and midwifery staff increased substantially for the third year running.
The figures show the amount of cover provided by agency staff jumped 44.9%, with costs rising from £16m in to just under £23.5m. In 2015-16, agency nurse and midwives provided cover equivalent to 276.7 full-time staff compared with 191 in 2014-15.
Meanwhile, there were 2,207.3 whole-time equivalent vacant nursing and midwifery posts as of March this year, according to the ISD quarterly report.
The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland said the figures showed that health boards had continued to struggle to fill permanent nursing posts and were employing expensive agency staff to fill the gaps.
Theresa Fyffe, RCN Scotland’s director, said the situation was “not sustainable”.
“While some investment in agency nursing will always be needed to cover unexpected events such as sickness absence and make sure there are enough nurses to provide safe care for patients, health boards cannot continue to ratchet up spending on agency nurses, which increased by £7.5m in the last year,” she said.
“These figures clearly show health boards are struggling to deliver services to more and more people with budgets that are not keeping pace with the increasing demands on the NHS,” said Ms Fyffe.
Many nurses felt under pressure and reported that they did not have time to provide the level of care for patients they would wish, she added.
“We know our NHS faces many pressures and is treating more patients with more complex illnesses”
The ISD confirmed that there had been a “large increase” in agency use but as a proportion of the total nursing and midwifery workforce this was “small” at just 0.4% for 2015-16.
This was also flagged up by the Scottish Government, which highlighted that nursing staff numbers had increased and spending on agency staff decreased since 2006 –.the year before the Scottish National Party came to power.
The £23.5m spent on agency nurses and midwives in 2015-16 was down by 11.3% from £26.47m in 2005-06, said Scottish health secretary Shona Robison.
“However, we know more needs to be done and earlier this year we launched a new initiative in partnership with NHS National Services to drive down the cost and use of all temporary agency staff,” she said.
“We know our NHS faces many pressures and is treating more patients with more complex illnesses than ever before. Despite these pressures, the fantastic staff working in the NHS continue to deliver high quality care,” she added.
Ms Robison said the government was investing in staff and Scotland was leading the way in developing mandatory nursing and midwifery workforce and workload planning tools.
The new figures show the total NHS Scotland workforce – not including GPs and dentists – was 161,656 people in March, the equivalent of just over 138,458 full-time staff. The government said 99.6% of all care was delivered by staff on NHS contracts.
Meanwhile, the figures show the use of bank nursing and midwifery staff stabilised in the last year, increasing by 0.7% from 4,256 whole-time equivalents in March 2015 to 4,287 whole-time equivalents in March 2016.