NHS statistics show spending on temporary doctors nearly doubles in the past decade as long-term vacancies reach 10-year high

by BMA Scotland media team

Press release from BMA Scotland 

Location: Scotland
Published: Tuesday 4 June 2024
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NHS Scotland workforce statistics have been released today which show:

  • Consultant vacancies (WTE) stood at 447.7 in March 2024 – up by 2.57% on December 2023 (436.5) and by 0.25% compared to the previous year (446.6)
  • There were 278.5 vacancies (WTE) of six months or more in March 2024, up by 17% compared to the previous quarter (237.9). This is the highest figure in the past decade and represent an increase of 250% since March 2014 (79.2)
  • Agency spending on locums is now £129.6 million per year – an increase of 8.3% compared to the previous year (£119.6million). This is also the highest figure in a decade, representing an increase of 92% compared to March 2014 (£67.3million)

Commenting Dr Alan Robertson, Chair of the BMA’s Scottish Consultant Committee, said:

“This is another round of NHS workforce statistics that again highlight the continued workforce crisis NHS Scotland finds itself in. It comes as no surprise that these figures aren’t moving in the right direction, as no substantial action has yet been taken by the Scottish Government to improve the recruitment and retention of senior doctors.

“The fact that so little progress has been made in tackling the nearly 450 consultant vacancies which are recorded in the official statistics emphasises why the Scottish Government must act without delay, to do better for patients, and finally properly address the recruitment and retention of senior doctors.

“Posts which have remained vacant for six months or more are at the highest in a decade – showing just how hard it is to recruit essential senior doctors.

“What is even more concerning is that we know these figures are failing to show the true extent of gaps in the workforce - our recent FOI found that vacancy numbers are twice those that are being reported.
“So it is of little surprise that spending on locums has also reached the highest level in a decade, with an eye-watering £129.6million being spent last year.

“This is only a sticking plaster approach and not a long-term solution to the workforce crisis; the money being spent on locums should instead be put towards staffing the service properly instead of trying to rely on temporary doctors to plug the many gaps that exist.

“Permanent staff are not only by far the more cost-effective option they also provide the stability and continuity of service that best serves patients.

“Meanwhile the stark reality of these stubbornly high consultant vacancies is reflected in the recent truly dreadful waiting times statistics which are having a real and terrible impact on patients and their families and seeing many doctors giving up working in NHS Scotland.

“While the Scottish Government likes to point to staffing in the NHS being at a record high, this does not take into account the continued rising demand for services. The lack of adequate staff leads to having to prioritise treatment for those who are most in need – resulting in patients waiting for non-urgent care for months or even years, while accident and emergency waiting times are similar to those we would see during the depths of winter.

“Doctors are having to deal with the reality of this on the ground every single day – so it is no wonder they are becoming increasingly demoralised and facing burnout and moral distress, leading to growing discontent.

“While it’s far from the only factor, addressing pay would be one relatively quick fix to improve retention and recruitment in Scotland.

“Consultants in Scotland now earn less than their counterparts south of the border and as a result, we have seen senior doctors leaving Scotland to take up jobs there and also consultants in England who were considering a job in Scotland changing their minds about moving here. Medicine is a global market and it is vital that Scotland is able to compete especially with its nearest neighbours, in attracting people to work in our health sector

“Addressing these issues would also help address vacancies and we call on the Scottish Government to start genuine pay negotiations urgently.”

Notes to editors

NHS Scotland waiting lists hit record high – BBC News, 28 May 2024

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors 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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