SHORT of technological evolution curing most illnesses, news about NHS operational matters will never be accompanied by the sight of rainbows and the sound of celebratory trumpets. “NHS has too many staff” is not a headline you’re likely to see soon.

However, there come times when “habitual worry” mutates into “serious concern”, and that is the situation regarding NHS recruitment in Scotland. The latest statistics show that long-term vacancies have risen more than 20 per cent for consultants, nurses and midwives.

There’s also been a rise in the number of nurse and midwife vacancies unfilled after three months, and in medical and dental consultant posts after six months. And, while overall staff numbers are up 0.3 per cent to 163,061, the growth trend is slowing down thanks to more people leaving. Sickness rates are up again and, while spending on agency staff is down, it’s up on nursing bank staff.

So much for the stats. Numbers are not cures. But a large number of unfilled vacancies affects the quality of health care. It also suggests a deeply unhealthy situation in the health service.

It’s in the nature of government health secretaries to look at gaping organisational wounds and come up with a cheerful prognosis. Thus, Shona Robison declares the workforce is at historically high levels and that there’s been record spending.

Ms Robison points out that England’s percentage of nursing vacancies is double that of Scotland’s. It’s an understandable comparison to make, but the minister needs to keep her stethoscope on Scotland’s wheezing NHS and let England cure itself.

Telling a patient, “at least you’re not as bad as some”, is rarely helpful. The bad situation in Scotland, unfortunately, threatens to get worse. The problem is that, for all the staff recruited, others are leaving. Stressed out, they’re packing it in or taking early retirement or going to work abroad.

All of which is compounded by sickness absence, often caused by overwork. So it does not sound like a great place to work. And that’s a shame for the dedicated staff. But, in some sectors of the service (not all), they’re caught in a vicious cycle. Unfilled vacancies heap pressure on existing staff who leave which creates more vacancies.

Something is systemically wrong here, and it won’t be fixed with short-term sticking plaster. Just as vacancies are becoming long-term, a long-term strategy must be developed to address this situation. That strategy has to involve not just recruiting staff – but keeping them. With that achieved, stress, sickness and resignations might be reduced, and we could get on a virtuous cycle at last, with happier headlines and happier patients.