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Warning against complacency as Scottish nurse numbers rise

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The number of nurses and midwives in post in Scotland has risen over the 12 months, but so has reliance on bank and agency staff, according to latest statistics.

Figures published today show that the number of whole-time-equivalent (WTE) qualified nursing and midwife staff increased by 1,136 between April 2013 and March 2014.

There are currently 58,428 WTE qualified nurses and midwives working in NHS Scotland, according to ISD Scotland’s latest workforce report.

“Vacancy rates are increasing and reliance on bank and agency staff is going up”

Theresa Fyffe

The figures show the number of nursing and midwifery staff in post is nearly back to the level at September 2009, according to the Royal College of Nursing.

However, while the numbers in post have gone up, vacancy rates have remained the same and reliance on temporary staff has increased – suggesting that Scottish health boards are still stretched and facing staffing shortages.

There were 1,637.5 WTE nursing and midwifery posts vacant on 31 March 2014, a rate of 2.7% – the same rate as in March 2013. Of these, 352.2 posts were vacant for three months or more.   

The highest vacancy rates were found in public health nursing (13.2%) and health visiting (5.6%).

During 2013-14, nursing and midwifery bank staff provided 3,933 WTE hours of cover at a cost of £118.2m – an increase of 10.1% WTE and £14m on 2012-13. Meanwhile, agency nursing and midwifery staff provided 124.5 WTE hours of cover at a cost of £9.3m – an increase of 35.3% WTE and £2.9m on 2012-13

Commenting on the rise in WTE posts, Scottish health secretary Alex Neil said: “These figures demonstrate this government’s commitment to deliver quality patient care for the people of Scotland through a strong investment in the NHS workforce.

“Increasing staff numbers is a key part of that, but it’s also important that they’re in the right place at the right time,” he said.

“That’s why we have also introduced mandatory nursing workforce planning tools, to help health boards plan for the number of staff they need,” he added.

However, RCN Scotland warned health boards to stop relying on bank and agency nursing staff, and start employing more permanent staff.

Theresa Fyffe, director of RCN Scotland, said: “While it’s good news that the number of nursing staff employed in NHS Scotland is nearly back up to the pre-cut levels of 2009, no one in the NHS should be complacent about this.

Theresa Fyffe

Theresa Fyffe

“Patient demand has increased considerably since 2009, with more and more complex care being delivered to more and more patients,” she said.

“The result of years of cuts to the nursing workforce coupled with fewer nurses being trained over the same period is that some health boards are now finding it difficult to recruit, so vacancy rates are increasing and reliance on bank and agency staff is going up,” she added.

Ms Fyffe highlighted that 8% of NHS Grampian’s workforce capacity was delivered by bank nurses and NHS Greater and Glasgow had increased its reliance on bank staff by nearly 17% over the past year.

“We will be carefully monitoring those boards with high vacancy rates and that are relying on bank and agency staff to make sure that where possible they start employing more permanent staff which is in the best interests of providing consistent and therefore high quality patient care,” she said.

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