As we head into another challenging winter, the Scottish Government has published its resilience plan for the NHS with welcome initiatives. But additional funding can only go so far without the extra staff needed, and the NHS has a serious workforce shortage.

The demand for physiotherapy continues to rise. An ageing population creates more elderly people who want to remain active and independent for as long as possible. The pandemic revealed that physiotherapists have a crucial role in intensive care, and the rehabilitation needs of communities has never been greater. First-contact physiotherapists are needed to take on the musculoskeletal caseload of GPs, helping to increase GP time and availability. But there are not the numbers to fill these roles.

With the NHS vacancy rate for physiotherapy in Scotland at an all-time high, at around 10%, services become short-staffed, wating times increase, and staff morale is eroded. Longer waiting times means conditions can worsen and become chronic, requiring more treatment and more complex intervention. It also means that services cannot be redesigned in confidence, because any new roles are unlikely to be filled.

To prevent next winter being worse than this for the NHS, the challenge is to plan now for a sustainable future. Preventing hospital admissions, speeding up discharge and supporting people to live independently is vital. Prevention and rehabilitation are not only better for people’s health, but also lessen people’s reliance on services, easing pressures and reducing costs. A right to rehabilitation as a human right in Scottish legislation must be the next step for health and social care. Physiotherapists are poised to make a significant contribution to the shift in care that is needed. But we need more of them in the NHS, and to make that happen we need more training places.

In England, undergraduate physiotherapy training places have increased by over 96% in the last decade (and by nearly 20% last year alone) to meet the increasing demand in all care settings. In Scotland, there are 13 fewer places than there were in 2013. Unlike many health professions that are struggling to recruit, there is no shortage of young Scots applying to universities each year (around 10 applicants for every place) and double the application rate in England. And we know that almost all of them will join the NHS on graduation.

So while there are many complex and intricate problems to be solved to ensure a sustainable national health service, the current shortage of physiotherapists isn’t one of them.

The answer must come from the Scottish Government, which can take more control over physiotherapy training numbers. Not enough places are funded to offer young people in Scotland the option of a career in physiotherapy, with only 7% of applicants accepted on to courses. There are no "earn and learn" routes yet for those working in the NHS in Scotland and this must also be addressed to diversify the workforce and support recruitment, particularly in remote and rural areas.

That is why the CSP is calling on the Scottish Government to grow the physiotherapy workforce, increase training places for Scottish students, and meet the demand for physiotherapists who are desperately needed by Scotland’s NHS.

Kenryck Lloyd-Jones is the public affairs and policy manager for Scotland for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy