The number of nurses and midwives working in Scotland has continued to increase, while vacancies slowly decline, according to latest figures from the devolved Scottish health service.
Vacancies, however, were still “stubbornly high”, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which reiterated its calls for further investment in staffing in response to the figures.
“The impact of working short-staffed day after day, both on patient care and on the wellbeing of nursing staff, cannot be underestimated”
The numbers, published in a report by NHS Scotland on Tuesday, showed there were a total of 5,447.4 whole time equivalent (WTE) vacancies for registered nurses and midwives, as of 30 September, 2023.
The college said this represented a “gradual decline” since December 2021, when around 10% of posts were unfilled.
Meanwhile, the figures showed there were 65,269.8 WTE nurses and midwives working in the NHS in Scotland at the same point, an increase of 1.6% on the same point a year prior.
In addition, the figures showed an increase in medical, dental, psychology, and allied health professional staff across the country, with a total of 158,375.2 WTE people employed in total.
Scottish health secretary Michael Matheson said it meant that the country now had higher NHS staffing per head than England, with an all-time high in the number of people working in the health service.
As well as nursing overall, when broken down, the figures showed there had been a 17% increase in the number of nurses working in child and adult mental health services (CAMHS) between September 2022 and 30 September 2023.
Despite these increases, RCN Scotland director Colin Poolman said there was still not enough nursing staff to deliver care for everyone who needs it.
“The impact of working short-staffed day after day, both on patient care and on the wellbeing of nursing staff, cannot be underestimated,” said Mr Poolman.
He noted that the Scottish Government’s Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce, set up in February, was looking at the issues behind the workforce challenges and would be proposing actions to address these.
Related articles: pay deal agreed
Mr Poolman said: “These actions must tackle the stubbornly high vacancy rates and be backed by the financial resources to deliver change.”
The taskforce was set up alongside the Scottish Government’s 2023-24 pay offer, which averted strikes, to establish the best ways to improve retention and recruitment in its nursing and midwifery workforce.
Mr Poolman reiterated the RCN’s call for more funding to meet taskforce recommendations and said that, in his view, the pace of change shown in the government’s vacancy figures was not fast enough.
He added: “The first minister must act now to ensure Scotland has the nursing workforce it needs.
“This year’s Agenda for Change Pay deal, which our members narrowly voted to accept, included a number of proposals aimed at retaining experienced nursing staff and improving their working conditions, yet are members are still waiting for the funding and implementation plans to be agreed by the Scottish Government.”
Mr Matheson said the government remained “committed” to achieving the aims of its 2022 National Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy, which included pledges on retention and recruitment.
“We want to make careers in Scotland’s NHS attractive and well rewarded,” he said.
“By engaging in good faith with unions to offer pay rises, Scotland was the only part of the UK to avoid NHS strikes and we continue to invest in training.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “Nursing and midwifery vacancies are still far too high.
“As we fast approach another winter crisis for our NHS, these figures make for deeply worrying reading,” he said.
More related articles: pay dispute timeline