NURSES have warned that their profession is heading for a "perfect storm" as staff shortages put patient care at risk.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland has called on the Scottish Government to address the issue, saying that a "boom and bust" approach to recruitment could leave many areas short-handed.

Its the union's latest report, 'Unheeded warnings: health care in crisis' highlights a number of factors which could affect the safe staffing levels in the future.

It found that the registered nursing and midwifery workforce rose by only1 per cent over all between 2009 and 2015, with numbers declining to a low in 2012 before starting to recover.

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Student nurse intake numbers fell also by a quarter between 2005/6 and 2012/13, and only began to rise again in 2013/14.

The lack of fresh talent means that the more than a half of the workforce is now aged 45 or over, a rise of 11 per cent since 2006.

RCN Scotland Director Theresa Fyffe 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. And you only have to look at the latest NHS vacancy rate, which went 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."

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Scottish Labour health spokesperson Anas Sarwar said that the warnings in the report had to be taken seriously.

He said: : “This report from the RCN has to be taken extremely seriously.The SNP government has ignored previous warnings from staff and that can’t be allowed to happen again.

“The SNP previously cut number of training places for nurses and midwives by more than a fifth and over 2000 nursing jobs were cut. The RCN warned then those choices were short-sighted and would lead to problems and that is exactly what has happened.

“This can’t be another problem that the SNP brushes under the carpet and ignores until it becomes untenable; Health Secretary Shona Robsion needs to outline what action she will take now.”

Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Donald Cameron added: “Yet again we have a stark warning on the NHS staffing crisis from those who know best.

“Some of these factors, such as age profile, are matters outwith the Scottish Government’s control. But others fall directly at the SNP’s door.

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“It has to explain why it hasn’t created more student places when it knew the workforce was ageing, and why hiring patterns have been so erratic.

“Ministers have consistently ignored opposition parties when it comes to NHS warnings, perhaps it will now listen to the experts on the ground.”

Health Secretary Shona Robison said that NHS staff numbers had increased under the SNP. She said: “Rises in nursing and midwifery vacancies are due to the creation of new posts in health boards, mainly as a result of information from our innovative workload and workforce planning tools which help health boards to plan for the number of staff they require.

"We are committed to training and retaining our nursing staff and we will increase the number of trainee nurses and midwives by 5.6% for 2016/17 – a fourth successive rise."