SPENDING on agency staff to plug gaps in the NHS in Scotland has doubled in four years to £175 million amid a growing vacancy rate.

Health boards spend £175m in 2015/16 on agency workers including nurses and locum doctors, up from £82m in 2011/12. Agency spend now accounts for 2.8 per cent of the total staff spend by the NHS in Scotland.

The figure was highlighted in a briefing paper by Audit Scotland ahead of a series of reports on the health service workforce. The first, which is due to be published by Audit Scotland in the summer, will focus on workforce planning and workforce pressures in hospitals. It will be followed in 2018/19 by a report on primary care and GP workforce issues amid a record vacancy rate in general practice in Scotland.

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Read more: Nursing body predicts cuts will cause NHS care crisis

Caroline Gardiner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "There are growing pressures on NHS boards which are struggling to juggle service delivery and progress major reform, at the same time as managing considerable financial challenges.

"Nearly 160,000 people work in Scotland’s NHS, which provides vital services for millions of us every year. Their hard work and commitment, sometimes in life-or-death circumstances, is

always to be admired. However, the NHS faces challenges if the workforce is to meet the growing demands of our ageing population and adapt to new ways of working.

Read more: Nursing body predicts cuts will cause NHS care crisis

"We know that our audit work on health and social care in Scotland has a role to play in the wider debate about what’s needed to transform these services and make them sustainable for the future."

The summary paper stressed that while staffing levels for NHS Scotland were the highest ever, vacancy rates and spending on agency staff had both been increasing.

The consultant vacancy rate sat at 6.5 per cent in 2016, with general practice running at five per cent.

Auditors also highlighted a trend towards an older workforce with 38 per cent of staff aged over 50 in 2016, compared with 34 per cent in 2012.

Turnover and sickness absence rates have also increased slightly over the last few years.

Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar MSP accused the Scottish Government of presiding over a "workforce crisis".

He said: "It was Nicola Sturgeon as health secretary who slashed training places for nurses and midwives and our health service is now in real trouble as a result."

Read more: Nursing body predicts cuts will cause NHS care crisis

Tory health spokesman Donald Cameron MSP said: "The SNP has been in sole charge of health for a decade, and these failings are entirely its responsibility.

"It hasn't sufficiently staffed wards, has the wrong priorities and has failed to train enough nurses."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP described the Government's record on workforce planning as "woeful".

He said: “Our health service is running on a skeleton crew and we’re running out of time.

“The evidence from Audit Scotland is indisputable. The number of vacancies has increased. Spending on agency staff has doubled since 2011 as NHS boards try to fill the gaps. A huge chunk of the NHS workforce is heading towards retirement, with nurses on the frontline warning we are juggling with a ‘demographic timebomb’.

“The Scottish Government’s record on workforce planning has been woeful. It takes seven years to train a doctor but staffing levels are only being planned five years ahead.

“The Health Secretary needs to immediately explain to patients and under pressure staff how her new strategy will end this workforce crisis.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "xxxxx"