BMA Scotland: NHS recovery from the pandemic will be “impossible” without focus on retention of senior doctors

by BMA Scotland media team

Press release from BMA Scotland

Location: Scotland
Published: Friday 26 February 2021
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Concerted action must be taken to retain consultants in Scotland’s NHS as it deals with and then recovers from the pandemic, BMA Scotland Consultant Chair Graeme Eunson said today.

Dr Eunson was speaking as a new BMA report was published which showed deepening issues with consultant vacancies and retaining the senior doctors Scotland needs. The report shows:

  • ONE in five NHS consultants, between the ages of 55 and 59 are leaving the profession in Scotland. Workforce data, provided by NHS Education for Scotland, showed the number of consultants aged between 55-59 in March 2020 compared to the cohort of consultants aged between 45-49 in 2010 had dropped by 20 percent: suggesting that one in five consultants are leaving the service in their mid to late fifties, with early retirement being the most likely destination.


  • Fresh FOI data collected by BMA Scotland shows the vacancy rate may be as high as 15.2% when vacancies excluded from official figures are included – an increase from the last time the BMA completed the exercise and at least double the officially recorded rate.


  • A BMA survey shows that more than 45% of the 261 consultants who responded are considering retiring in the next five years. Of those, more than half report that is earlier than their normal pension age.


  • Highlights the Scottish Academy’s concern that in 2019, 222 planned interview panels were cancelled – more than a third of all appointment panels held that year. Of those 222 cancelled panels, 85 percent of them were due to applicant related reasons; no applicants, no suitable applicants, or applicants withdrew.


Burnout, exhaustion, poor work life balance and concerns over wellbeing are cited among the reasons many senior doctors are leaving the workforce.

These reports suggest Scotland’s NHS is already short of senior doctors as it attempts to cope with and then recover from the COVID-19 pandemic – and without clear action, the position will only get worse.

Dr Graeme Eunson, chair of the BMA’s Scottish Consultants Committee said: “These are extremely worrying, but not altogether surprising, figures that are indicative of what we are seeing on the ground in Scotland’s NHS. Our consultant workforce has played a major role in the Covid response, but has been stretched to its limits over the past year and staff shortages are already affecting the ability of doctors to deliver the high-quality patient care they strive for.

“Staff are exhausted: from a hard winter in 2019 straight into the COVID-19 pandemic early last year, with no time to recover between the first and second waves, they are now running on empty. Doctors had been reporting widespread burnout and an array or workforce and workplace pressures long before the pandemic hit last year. This, in conjunction with a punitive pension tax regime, had led many consultants to consider early retirement, and it now appears many of them have either followed through with that, or a planning to.

“We now face losing another significant proportion of our workforce as a result of the past 12 months. We need urgent and enduring action to address this deeply worrying drain of senior doctors out of the workforce. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental and physical wellbeing is such that many feel the only way they can recover is to significantly cut their hours or leave the profession altogether. I cannot be any clearer when I say that in order for our NHS to recover, our staff must recover first. There needs to be a focus on recovery and wellbeing for all staff who have been responding to the pandemic, with tangible investment in our core NHS staff: without that it will be impossible to get the NHS back to where we want – and need – it to be.

“Of course, everyone’s priority at the moment is dealing with the immediate crisis Covid poses. But part of that must be supporting staff on the frontline – and as our NHS begins to recover, it is vital that this chronic shortage of doctors is finally addressed by a decisive plan to retain senior doctors, which considers how we support them throughout their career. We need to see serious steps taken in Scotland to make working as a doctor an appealing career choice and show doctors they are valued. That means focused efforts on recruitment and retention, improved work-life balance, and a concentrated effort on improving the mental and physical wellbeing of staff, which includes steps to improve the overall working culture within the NHS. I very much look forward to Scottish Ministers addressing these key issues as part of their COVID-19 recovery strategy before it’s too late.”

Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors and medical students in the UK.

A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

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