Consultant vacancy figures show there are still “simply not enough doctors in our NHS”


Vacancies in the consultant workforce across Scotland’s NHS are increasing significantly, with a high number of posts also left unfilled for more than six months, figures published show today.

The statistics from ISD Scotland show the official vacancy rate at 8.9 per cent – some 508 vacancies, which is an increase of 18 per cent over the year. The number of long-term vacant posts not filled after six months stands at 262, demonstrating that many jobs remain extremely challenging to recruit to.

Coupled with the ongoing issues surrounding large, unexpected pensions tax bills hitting senior doctors across Scotland – forcing many to cut down their hours and give up extra work – the BMA believes it is clear that urgent action is required to retain and recruit doctors to the most senior posts. 

Today’s official figures are likely to understate the true position – BMA Scotland collated FOI data last year that indicated vacancies are actually at around double the level recorded by official statistics – a difference of around 375 WTE vacancies. This would be enough doctors to potentially staff a large hospital that are desperately missing from the Scottish workforce.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Simon Barker, Chair of BMA Scotland’s Consultants Committee said:

“The substantial long-term gaps in Scotland’s workforce are a growing and serious concern – not just for the NHS, but equally for everyone who relies on it for the care they need. Government complacency year after year has failed to address this deeply worrying lack of doctors.

“The significant impact this has on NHS capacity is now exacerbated by unexpected large pensions tax bills that are forcing doctors to cut the hours they work. I am hearing from colleagues across Scotland that they have either received, or fear being hit by, these bills, which are running into tens of thousands of pounds. This is the result of complex tax rules with an impact that is difficult to predict. BMA members are only able to estimate the ultimate impact of this through our pensions calculator. In some cases it results in the utterly ludicrous scenario of doctors losing money for doing extra work. It is no surprise that doctors are changing their working habits as a result and are not taking on extra work, cutting down on the hours they do, or even retiring early. Colleagues are reporting an increasing impact on ‘front door’ provision of services as well as waiting lists as a result. The English Health Department this week, in response to this crisis, released pensions mitigations that we need to see urgently introduced in Scotland if we are to stand a hope of reducing the negative impact on our services. We need maximum flexibility at a Scottish level and meaningful reform of the annual allowance and taper from the UK Government.

“On top of this, these statistics are still hiding the real scale of vacancies among the consultant workforce. Previous analysis shows that whole, large hospital could be staffed from vacancies left out of the figures, that demonstrates how far from reality today’s figures are likely to be. We need to get real about how many vacancies there are, and the BMA stands ready to help that process.

“Our workforce is stretched to its very limit. The truth is simple: we just do not have enough doctors. Yet – incredibly – those doctors in post, who are going above and beyond what is expected of them to cover gaps in the workforce, are being punished financially for trying to help keep the NHS working. Action must be taken. We need serious steps 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 reversing years of real-term pay cuts. The Scottish Government has instead chosen to rely on temporary and more expensive locum staff to plug gaps and shore up services. This is not a sustainable model for our NHS and it does not serve the people of Scotland well. I appeal to Scottish Ministers to take this matter seriously, to address it urgently, before it’s too late.”