Scotland must develop policies that seek to create a “modern, flexible workforce” in order to tackle retention issues, the cabinet secretary for health and social care has said today.
At a conference on the next steps for the health and social care workforce in the country, Humza Yousaf said such policies were necessary in order to have a workforce “fit for the future”.
“We want to retain and, of course, well-being is at the very, very heart of that”
His comments came as new data revealed the scale of which Scotland relies on agency staff, and nursing leaders have warned that workforce shortages in the country are at “critical” level.
Statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Scottish Labour have shown that the bill for agency nurses has almost doubled in a year, from around £47m to over £92m between 2020-21 and 2021-22.
Mr Yousaf acknowledged that vacancies in health and social care are increasing, as Scotland now has 6,200 vacancies across nursing and midwifery.
He said that the Scottish Government has recruited more than 1,000 additional healthcare support staff and almost 200 registered nurses from overseas to address the unprecedented challenges facing the NHS.
However, he said “crucial” expansion was necessary to get more people into the workforce, including increasing all nursing training pathways into various fields like adult, mental health and learning disability nursing.
Mr Yousaf described how the Scottish Government has increased funded places on degree programmes for nursing and midwifery by over 8.7%, equating to around 4,837 places.
One central issue affecting the workforce is staff retention, something which Mr Yousaf said the Scottish Government was trying to address.
He said: “What we keep hearing about time and time again is about retention, and [staff] wellbeing is crucial to that retention.”
Mr Yousaf added that, from speaking to staff on the frontline, the government has “got to make sure” they are giving people time and access to important interventions to support them, including wellbeing support.
“That could be the difference between them staying and working or moving to another career elsewhere, and we don’t want that, we want to retain and, of course, wellbeing is at the very, very heart of that,” he added.
He stressed it was “vital that our staff feel valued and rewarded for the work that they do and that NHS Scotland and social care employers are the employers of choice”.
“Across the NHS, across the workforce, we’ll continue to explore, we’ll continue to develop policies that seek to create a modern, flexible workforce that is fit for the future and recognises the needs of our valued workforce,” added Mr Yousaf.
Additionally, Mr Yousaf said that the Scottish Government was investing £11m over the next five years in new national and international recruitment campaigns.
He spoke about using international recruitment as a remedy for staffing gaps, whilst also training a domestic workforce.
He said: “I’m really pleased to see that from some of the work we’ve done over the last year, there’s a real appetite for people right across the world globally, to come to Scotland to work.”
More than 200 nurses from overseas have arrived in Scotland, with a further 200 anticipated to arrive in the coming months, he added.
Scotland’s agency nurse spend
The speech from the health secretary comes in the same week that newly-released figures highlight the increasing spend on agency nurses.
In 2021-22, over 57,000 shifts have been covered by agency nurses, representing a 192% increase on the previous year, figures unveiled by Scottish Labour have shown.
These agency shifts equated to around £92m spent in 2021-22, up from £47m in 2020-21.
The data also showed that NHS Scotland has more than tripled its agency staff bill in five years, from £29m in 2017-18.
In response, nursing leaders have continued to express concern over the reliance on agency staff.
Colin Poolman, interim director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: “The workforce shortages across Scotland’s health and social care services are at critical levels, impacting on patient safety and the wellbeing of staff.”
Mr Poolman said it is “no surprise” that health boards in Scotland are having to resort to expensive agency nurses to fill the gaps, due to nursing staff feeling exhausted and burnt out.
However, he warned the level of spend needed to finance agency staff is “not sustainable”.
He added: “The bottom line is that Scotland does not have the nursing staff it requires to deliver care to all who need it.
“We need action now to retain experienced nursing staff and to make nursing is an attractive career choice.”
Also responding, Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “This eyewatering bill to the public purse is the direct result of the SNP government’s failure to support Scotland’s nurses.
“We are now facing an exodus of nurses from the NHS as a result of SNP mismanagement – and the people of Scotland are being expected to pick up the tab.
“This is no way to run our NHS and no way to look after the people of Scotland.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Spend on agency nursing remains low, and is less than 1% of NHS spend.
“The use of temporary staff in an organisation as large and complex as NHS Scotland will always be required to ensure vital service provision during times of planned and unplanned absences such as annual, maternity and sick leave.
“The majority of these shifts are filled from the NHS Staff Bank, who are NHS staff, on NHS contracts at NHS rates of pay. We have over 35,000 nurses and 2,900 doctors registered through the NHS Staff Bank.”