BOOM and bust staff planning could lead to a “perfect storm” in NHS Scotland, nursing leaders claim.

In a new report, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland says many health boards have reduced their headcount in response to budget pressures, despite the increased demands placed on the service by an ageing population.

According to the report, the registered nursing and midwifery workforce rose by just one per cent from 2009 to 2015, falling to a low in 2012 before making a recovery. Health care support workers were said to have followed a “similar pattern”.

Theresa Fyffe, director of RCN Scotland, said: “The last few years have been characterised by a ‘boom and bust’ approach to nursing workforce planning, with many of our health boards cutting the number of nursing staff, simply to balance their books – and then having to try and recruit more nursing staff as demand for services soared.

“This is no way to run our health services. Scotland’s population is getting older and more and more people are living with more complex conditions. Demand for health care is going through the roof. You only have to look at the latest NHS vacancy rate – up from 3.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent in June 2016 – to know that the very modest increase in staff is just not keeping pace with demand, with a number of health boards really struggling to recruit.”

RCN Scotland made a similar claim in June, when health secretary Shona Robison said NHS staff numbers had hit a “record high” under the current Scottish Government, with “more consultants, nurses and midwives delivering care for the people of Scotland”.

Robison said: “We know there are challenges to be addressed, but it is welcome that in the last NHS employee survey, staff remained committed – with almost nine out of ten willing to go the ‘extra mile’ at work.”

However, LibDem health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton called for ministers to publish an annual report on workforce planning, adding: “This report shows clearly why this extra level of scrutiny is required.”