Safe staffing: fears that new law will fail as nursing vacancies soar
Unions call for clarification on the role of bank staff and nursing students as fears grow that new safe staffing law lacks bite and will be unworkable
Nursing unions have raised significant concerns about high vacancy numbers and the role of nursing students and bank staff under the new safe-staffing law in Scotland, as a consultation into guidance ended.
Delayed safe-staffing law will be difficult to implement, warn unions
The Scottish Government passed the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act 2019, which will create a legal duty for health and care providers to ensure a safe level of staffing for patients as well as professionals with the right skills for specific care needs.
The legislation was paused during the COVID-19 pandemic but is now due to come into force in April 2024.
- RELATED: Scotland passes safe staffing law
A public consultation on the guidance was launched in June to prepare for its implementation, with RCN Scotland warning it had concerns about how the law can be implemented amid high nursing vacancies. The consultation closed on 19 September.
RCN Scotland’s associate director Eileen McKenna said: ‘We have serious concerns about the stubborn level of vacancies in nursing posts and how that will affect implementation. Thousands of registered nurses are missing from teams across Scotland, affecting the safety and quality of patient care.
‘We know that nursing staff often go home feeling that they are unable to provide the quality of care they want people to receive. There is a lot of work still to be done if the act is to have the positive outcomes we expect.’
Calls for clarification on nursing student status regarding safe staffing
The college added that while many of their initial concerns had been addressed, issues remained around training frontline staff on the changes, clarifying the guidance on the status of nursing students in different settings, calculating agency costs and the status of bank staff.
The legislation does not give a prescriptive number for staff-to-patient ratios that would equate to safe levels, but instead allows for local decision-making and pathways for staff to report breaches. While the legislation outlines that legally nursing students will not be counted in clinical settings, the RCN has called for clarity on the status of nursing students in care settings and apprenticeships.
Meanwhile Unison echoed significant concerns about how the legislation would affect current staff saying it ‘promises much but delivers nothing in real terms’.
Unison Scotland’s lead officer for health Matt McLaughlin added: ‘NHS wards and services across Scotland are at critically low staffing levels.
‘Tackling that needs more than guidance, it needs significant and rapid investment in staff training or a redesign of services. The guidance talks about staff reporting concerns, but… this requirement is not supported with additional staff or time and completely ignores the fact that in many workplaces staff are too scared to speak up for fear of retribution.’
Consultation results expected by end of the year
Once it comes into force Healthcare Improvement Scotland will be responsible for monitoring the compliance of health and care providers. The Scottish Government is expected to publish the results on the consultation by the end of the year.
A spokesperson added: ‘Any proposed updates to the guidance will be considered with key stakeholders. The guidance chapters were drafted collaboratively with health boards and trade unions, including the RCN and we are grateful for their support throughout the process.’
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