Scotland has a record shortfall in the number of registered nurses required to staff the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.
Analysis by the RCN Scotland union found that the difference between the required number of nurses and the full-time equivalent (FTE) who are registered has grown to 3438.
The gap has risen from 1613 in June 2015 – a 3.3% difference between the number of nurses needed and the number actually in post – to 7.4% in June of this year.
Official figures published by NHS Education for Scotland reveal that the number of whole-time equivalent staff in post fell by 409 between March and June.
Despite record-high numbers of nurses employed, RCN Scotland has also said there are almost 5000 nursing and midwifery staff vacancies within NHS Scotland.
It comes as RCN members are consulted in an indicative vote about whether to consider industrial action over a pay dispute, with the ballot closing on Monday.
Commenting on the figures, the union’s interim director, Colin Poolman, said: “Despite the Scottish Government’s talk about record levels of staffing, these figures show that the shortfall in registered nurses needed to run NHS services has never been higher.
“RCN members are telling us every day that there simply aren’t sufficient numbers of nursing staff and that this is putting them under significant pressure.
“As we head into winter and are trying to remobilise services, this should be a wake-up call for the Cabinet Secretary for Health.
“Much more needs to be done to encourage our experienced nursing staff to stay and to ensure there is a robust plan to increase the future workforce.
“Implementing fair pay is part of the solution, which is why RCN members strongly rejected the pay award made by the Scottish Government earlier this year.
“RCN members across England, Scotland and Wales are currently being asked what next steps they are willing to take.
“The fact that we are even considering industrial action shows the strength of feeling and the pressure that staff are currently under.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “These shocking figures lay bare the staffing crisis Humza Yousaf is presiding over in Scotland’s NHS.
“It’s little wonder that waiting times are at record levels when our health service is short of more than 3400 nurses.
“Lives will continue to be needlessly lost unless the SNP Government gets to grips with this staffing crisis immediately and ensures the NHS has the nurses it needs.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Scotland’s NHS staffing levels are at a record high level and have increased by over 5000 WTE in the last year.
“Thanks to nine consecutive years of staffing increases we have an extra 25,000 staff working in our health service, an 11% increase in qualified nurses and midwives and a steady rise in places on pre-registration nursing and midwifery undergraduate training programmes.
“Our NHS Recovery Plan includes a commitment to provide £11m for new national and international recruitment campaigns and to establish a national Centre for Workforce Supply.
“We have also announced a record £300m of new investment in measures to help services deal with system pressures over winter.”