Published: 05/12/2002, Volume112 No. 5834 Page 23

Recently, HSJ published the NHS vacancy survey figures for 31 March ('Strong-arm tactics', cover feature, 21 November).

Most of these figures are bogus.

Trusts do not 'actively seek' to employ where they know from past experience that they will not succeed. It is not just a question that personnel departments have budgets for advertising, and the filling of consultant vacancies is a case in point. If a trust would really like to employ four of five additional consultant radiologists, they may decide to advertise for only one or two. It does not help a department to recruit if potential applicants see a trust with a large number of vacancies and realise what that would mean if they take the post.

For many of the professionals listed, the same point applies. It was interesting to see technical staff (including all biomedical scientists) with a vacancy factor of only 3.2 per cent. This is absurd and the president of the Royal College of Pathologists has only recently put out a plea for more investment and employment in the field because of the damaging effect of labour shortage in, among other things, histopathology services. Midwife vacancies were put at only 2.8 per cent nationally. The same issue of HSJ contained yet another story of a midwifery unit being closed because of lack of staff. Every midwife in the country knows the position is far more grave then 2.8 per cent.

Those trusts in the UK with a growing dependence upon agency staffing do not use them for so high a proportion of their workforce out of choice. It is because they cannot employ staff.

The truth is that the NHS is beginning to come apart as staffing falls further behind demand. Picking manpower targets out of thin air that have no possible chance of being met and picking a fight with the medical profession on spurious political grounds does not inspire confidence in the government's ability to make headway with these crises in labour supply.

Professor Roger Dyson County councillor Essex NHS overview and scrutiny committee chair