TEMPORARY nurses from the NHS bank and private agencies are increasingly plugging gaps on Scottish hospital wards, new figures have revealed.

In one year, use of short term nursing cover by the Scottish health service rocketed by 53 per cent to the highest level on record.

Vacancies for hospital consultants also leapt - with almost 150 positions lying vacant for at least six months. The British Medical Association Scotland has expressed grave concern about the problem.

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Dr Nikki Thompson, chair of the BMA's Scottish Consultants Committee, said: "The fact that official figures have shown the number of vacant consultant positions is still on the rise is extremely worrying. We also know that there are consultant vacancies that do not get picked up in official statistics, so the picture is very likely worse than these figures suggest.

"Consultants, in post and working, are vital to patient care. Jobs unfilled after months on end puts huge pressure on services as remaining consultants struggle to cover the gaps."

In March 2011, 135 jobs representing three per cent of consultant posts in Scotland were unfilled. In March this year 407.6 jobs, equating to 7.7 per cent of the total, were unfilled. The number of vacancies which have sat empty for more than six months is 147 - an increase of 86.4 per cent in one year.

Dr Thompson said the Scottish Government had to recognise that they have "a major recruitment and retention problem" and take action to value the consultants in post and attract the other staff "that patients and services desperately need."

In the past Dr Thompson has warned that senior medical jobs in Scotland were becoming less attractive than those in England because the contracts were tying them to clinical work for 90 per cent of the week - leaving just four hours for other professional activities such as training junior doctors and updating their skills.

The number of doctors and nurses employed by the health service has reached record levels, with a 4.2 per cent increase in nurses and midwives since 2006 and an increase of 4.8 per cent in the number of consultants in the last year alone.

The Royal College of Nursing Scotland said credit must be given to the Scottish Government and health boards for increasing the number of nurses employed, but cuts to both the workforce and student nurse numbers between 2009 and 2012 had hit hard.

Theresa Fyffe, RCN Scotland director, said: "We are now seeing a workforce that is overstretched and overburdened, as health boards struggle to replace nurses who leave or retire and patient demand continues to rise.

"This situation is not only bad for patients, for staff - who are now increasingly likely to be off sick - it is bad for the public purse. The short-term cuts made to the workforce to save money mean that the amount of money that health boards are now having to spend on bank staff and more worryingly, on expensive agency staff, is going up: in a year it went from £127.5 million to £145.6m."

The figures were released by the statistics arm of NHS Scotland as Westminster Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused staffing agencies of "ripping off the NHS". He has ordered a clampdown introducing a maximum hourly rate for the doctors and nurses which agencies supply. The BMA blamed the reliance on agency staff on poor workforce planning by the government.

Health Secretary Shona Robison said the Scottish Government had invested in and supported a highly skilled NHS workforce.

She said: "In addition to having record staffing levels, Scotland is leading the UK in the development of mandatory nursing and midwifery workload and workforce planning tools that help health boards to plan for the number of staff they require."

She added: "The recent rise in nursing and midwifery vacancies is due to the creation of new posts in health boards, mainly as a result of information from the workload and workforce planning tools."

Student nurse numbers have been increased over the last three years.

However, union officials have demanded extra support for student nurses after a survey found 83 per cent had fallen into debt.

The research involving more than 1,000 student nurses in Scotland revealed 42 per cent were running up credit card bills, 14 per cent had taken out a loan and 6% had turned to high street loan companies.

Unison called on the Scottish Government to urgently increase bursary rates for student nurses and midwives on the back of the findings.