Recent promises made by Nicola Sturgeon at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) congress to enshrine safe staffing levels for nurses in law have been met with scepticism from some quarters.
The Scottish first minister, who was addressing nurses from across the UK at the congress in Glasgow, vowed that legally-binding rules would be put in place to ensure the right number of nursing staff were in place to provide the best possible standard of nursing care for patients.
She also laid out plans to build on Scotland’s record of leading the UK in the development of workload and workforce planning tools and put measures in place to make these a legal requirement. This, she said, would enable health boards to ensure they have the right number of staff to provide the best possible care for patients in a variety of specialities; furthermore, she promised to look into what other measures were required to protect patient safety.
Sturgeon went on to pledge to continue to provide free tuition and financial support for student nurses to ensure adequate numbers of newly-qualified staff were entering the profession. This promise earned the first minister a standing ovation.
Although her audience welcomed the announcements, some politicians and healthcare professionals and were keen to remind the first minister that it would take more than a new statute to ensure that the promises yielded the desired results. Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, was quick to point out that the law would need to be backed up by government funding and stressed that the current financial pressures would be the main challenge.
Adding his voice in agreement, the Scottish Labour Party’s health spokesman, Anas Sarwar, also commented on the need for the commitment to be backed by adequate funding to become a reality. Tory MSP Alexander Burnett went even further to condemn the present Scottish government for failing in terms of forward planning for the NHS, lamenting that patients in Grampian are paying the price.
There were also questions raised as to whether the proposed legislation would apply to all NHS employees rather than just nurses, with Matt McLaughlin, head of health at UNISON Scotland, warning that some health boards could end up reducing staffing levels in areas such as occupational therapy or physiotherapy to stay on the right side of the law with regard to nursing staff.
Recent reports also confirm that staffing concerns are not limited to the nursing profession. According to official figures, there are fewer GPs in Scotland than in previous years, resulting in added pressure on existing staff.
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