NURSES in Scotland will fight for an above inflation pay rise when talks get underway with the Scottish Government in the coming weeks, a trade union leader has said.

Julie Lamberth, chair of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland, said fair pay is needed to stem an exodus of staff and retain younger nurses in the NHS.

Speaking to the Herald ahead of the RCN's national congress, which is due to be held in Glasgow from June 5 to 9, Ms Lamberth said the profession will also be pushing for safe staffing legislation to be implemented as a priority.

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Scotland was the first part of the UK to pass the landmark legislation in May 2019 paving the way to legally-binding benchmarks for the number and skill mix of staff required across both health and social care, but its implementation was stalled by the pandemic.

Ms Lamberth said: "If you were to speak to nurses right now, pay and safe staffing are the two priorities.

"The last time we were in Glasgow was 2016, and that's when the commitment was made to safe staffing; we're no further forward.

"Yes, it's been enshrined in law, but we're no further forward. They passed it and then they paused it.

"What it should do is ensure the staffing establishment is based on what a service needs to provide safe and effective care for patients, instead of affordability.

"A lot of the figures for the numbers of staff in the whole-time equivalent establishment are based on what they've budgeted for historically, but it actually doesn't meet the needs of the patients we're looking after now.

"There's more people being cared for at home, but the people coming into hospital are more complex and the staffing just isn't right to meet their needs."

HeraldScotland: The vacancy rate for nurses and midwives in NHS Scotland rose sharply during 2021 (Source: Turas Data Intelligence)The vacancy rate for nurses and midwives in NHS Scotland rose sharply during 2021 (Source: Turas Data Intelligence)

It comes as the latest figures show nursing and midwifery vacancies climbing faster than ever - up 170% between December 2020 and December 2021, by which point nearly 6,700 posts, or 9.3 per cent of the total, were empty.

Over the same period, the number of new posts created in the NHS had rose by just 10.6%, indicating that the surge was primarily driven by nurses and midwives quitting the NHS.

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While it is also true that the number of nurses and midwives employed in NHS Scotland is at a record high, the contention of trade unions including the RCN is that there are simply not enough to cope with demand.

"Nurses are working under pressure and some of them are coming off shift in tears because there's just not enough of them to go round," said Ms Lamberth.

"They don't have the time to give the patient care they normally would and they're left feeling frustrated."

HeraldScotland:

HeraldScotland: The vacancy rate ranges from 1.2% in Ayrshire and Arran, to 13.8% in the Western Isles; overall, vacancy rates are highest (13%) in district nursingThe vacancy rate ranges from 1.2% in Ayrshire and Arran, to 13.8% in the Western Isles; overall, vacancy rates are highest (13%) in district nursing

Ms Lamberth said the strain of the pandemic had driven many older nurses to retire earlier than planned, with younger staff increasingly opting out of NHS employment in favour of better paid agency nursing.

She said much more should be done to improve childcare for NHS staff - such as providing in-hospital creche facilities - as well as giving nurses towards the end of their career more flexibility to reduce their hours.

At the moment, she said, too many were forced to retire instead.

Figures published last week by the Nursing and Midwifery Council indicate that 22.3% of the nurses and midwives on the professional register in Scotland are now aged 56 or older, up from 17.6% in March 2018.

HeraldScotland: More than one in five nurses registered in Scotland are now over 56More than one in five nurses registered in Scotland are now over 56

Ms Lamberth, who joined the NHS 30 years ago and is now a senior charge nurse for maternity theatres, said it also made no sense that some student nurses are qualifying without a job to go to.

She said: "When I graduated, I knew I'd have a job - I didn't know where, but I knew I'd get a job. Students these days don't have that same comfort knowing that they'll absolutely have a job.

"We put them through all that training, there should be vacancies for them."

The RCN, along with other health trade unions, is gearing up for belated 2022/23 pay negotiations with the Scottish Government as UK inflation hits a 40-year high of 9%.

READ MORE: Scotland faces mass strikes this summer as more workers threaten walkouts over pay

The RCN previously sparked controversy by insisting that only a pay hike of 5% above inflation - right now, 14% - would be acceptable to retain staff and counter the spiralling costs of living, as well as balance out 10 years of below-inflation increases that have left nurses substantially poorer in real terms.

HeraldScotland:

Most nurses are Band 5, on salaries currently ranging in Scotland from around £26,000 to just under £33,000.

Ms Lamberth said: "We're a safety critical role, but our pay does not reflect the job or the responsibility that we have anymore, and in real terms it's been pay cut after pay cut because it's never been in line with inflation and people are really feeling the pinch.

"Nurses work extra hours, they give up annual leave, they want to help. But they do need that extra money.

"It needs to be above inflation to show that we're actually going to benefit."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are discussing a pay deal for NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) staff in 2022-23 with trade unions and employers, which will be backdated to 1 April.

"We remain committed to ensuring that NHS Scotland AfC continue to have the best pay and conditions of AfC staff in the UK.

“Throughout the pandemic, the NHS’s main focus has been prioritising, managing and providing services. 

"The movement towards remobilisation will allow us to engage with these clinical staff groups and health board managers who are crucial to the development and co-production of an implementation timetable for the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act 2019.”