Safe staffing: Scotland to implement legislation by April 2024

The pandemic hit the pause button, but the Scottish government pledges to have measures in place in all health and care settings within two years

The pandemic hit the pause button, but the Scottish government pledges to have measures in place in all health and care settings within two years

Nurse on busy ward
Picture: iStock

Nurses working in health and care settings in Scotland are a step closer to having safe staffing levels after the government set out a timetable for implementing landmark legislation.

The initiative means the Scottish Government will be held accountable for safe staffing measures in health and care settings. However, it will be another two years before legal requirements designed to protect patients and staff are fully implemented.

Legislation will ensure safe staffing for nurses

The Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act, passed by the Scottish parliament in 2019, was the first law of its kind in the UK to set out safe staffing requirements for health and care services.

It also requires the government to report annually on measures to ensure sufficient staffing levels, and it strengthens the rights of staff who have concerns around staffing.

Implementation of the act was delayed due to the pandemic but the Scottish Government has pledged this will happen by April 2024.

It added that it would work with professionals bodies, unions and staff over the next two years to develop and test guidance and tools to support the changes.

Nurse leaders pledge to ensure effectiveness of new law

The move was welcomed by the RCN, but nursing leaders said it was disappointing that it had taken so long to get to this point.

‘While we would like to see the act implemented sooner, nursing staff will be pleased to now have a clear timetable,’ said RCN Scotland Board chair Julie Lamberth.

Eileen McKenna

RCN associate director for nursing, policy and professional practice Eileen McKenna said: ‘We will focus on making sure this vital law works to deliver safe and effective care for patients and residents, as well as improved working conditions for our members.’

Scotland’s health and social care secretary Humza Yousaf said implementing the legislation was a key part of efforts to help the NHS recover from the pandemic, boost recruitment and promote staff well-being.

Professor points out stark contrast with England

Developments in Scotland may ramp up pressure on other UK nations such as Northern Ireland, where plans to introduce safe staffing legislation have been delayed.

University of Edinburgh visiting professor James Buchan said: ‘A lot of detail remains to be finalised, but there is now a timetable for action.

‘In contrast, the lack of progress in England marks it out as the only UK country with no plan for national safe staffing.’

Safe staffing law: what’s happening in other UK nations?

Wales was the first country in the UK and Europe to introduce safe nurse staffing law in 2016. The Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act previously only applied to adult acute surgical and medical wards but was extended to paediatric inpatient wards from October 2021.

In Northern Ireland the introduction of safe staffing legislation was a key part of a deal that brought an end to strike action by RCN members at the start of 2020. Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has said the legislation – delayed due to the pandemic – will be prioritised in the next term of the assembly.

In February this year, the Department of Health and Social Care told Nursing Standard it had no plans to introduce safe staffing legislation in England. ‘We believe the responsibility for staffing levels should remain with employers at a local level, responding to local needs, and overseen and regulated by the Care Quality Commission,’ a spokesperson said.

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