Nurses’ industrial action reducing the number of operating theatres to a bare minimum would have “tragic consequences”, the association of surgeons warned on Monday, as it condemned the union that issued the directive.

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses has listed a series of directives to its members in a dispute over salary. But last week a court severely curtailed the actions, limiting them to those that do not affect patient health, following a request for an injunction filed by the health authorities.

However, the court allowed the union to go ahead with a measure that restricts the availability of operating theatres to just four, the minimum allowed by law.

The Association of Surgeons of Malta on Monday slammed the union for this directive and expressed strong disagreement over the court’s decision.

“We state our unequivocal support for the inalienable right of the MUMN and all other trade unions to institute industrial action to improve the working conditions of their members,” the statement said.

“However, our support and sympathy for the rights of trade unions and their members cannot allow us to ignore our moral, ethical and professional duty to our patients who seek our assistance when they are distressed and most vulnerable.”

Association president Joseph Galea said that any directive that further limited the timely diagnosis and treatment of cancerous conditions, serious heart and lung disease, peripheral vascular disease, brain conditions and kidney/gall stone disease would inevitably lead to tragic consequences.

“Delays in cancer, heart and brain surgery lead to reduced survival. Neglected stone disease, apart from possibly being fatal, can result in permanent and irretrievable organ damage. Neglected blood vessel disease leads to more amputations.

“The ruling’s vague encouragement to the surgeon to push urgent cases is obviously impractical at best and naive at worst. Surgeons cannot be made to face the impossible scenario to ration life, death and limb loss while functioning under duress and juggling conflict with our equally hard-working nursing colleagues and their union,” Galea said.

The association said the directives had inflicted another level of stress on patients who were already facing the despair of being given a serious and life-altering prognosis, the fear of undergoing high-risk surgery and the anxiety and apprehension of contracting COVID-19.

The association said it was very disappointed that the court did not deem as having a severe impact on patients’ health a directive that would reduce to just four the 23 operating theatres in operation at Mater Dei Hospital.

The president of the MUMN, Paul Pace, reacted strongly to the surgeons’ statement, telling them to “stay out of it” and “mind their own business”.

Their statement carried “no weight at all” and it was “not credible” because when other unions ordered action in theatres, no one had objected, Pace said.

He denounced the association’s “two-weights-two-measures” approach because it never spoke when the doctors’ association or another union representing other healthcare professionals ordered action that affected the theatres.

The hospital is already running at a reduced capacity of operating theatres – only 11 to 12 of the 23 theatres at Mater Dei were being used. The reduction to four is the bare minimum permitted by law.

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