Buses, mini vans, taxis and hearses are expected to drive along arterial roads around the island this morning in protest against the government's decision to liberalise the hearse market and what transport operators deem as a threat to remove monopolies in public transport.

Over 1,000 public transport vehicles - which will today embark on an indefinite nationwide strike that is set to create widespread transport disruptions - are expected to meet in various locations at 6 a.m. before taking to the roads in mid-morning.

Transport Federation president Victor Spiteri said the strategy - which was agreed upon when the federation decided to call the strike - is for all operators to report to their workplace before starting "a carcade" along the roads.

He insisted that it was not the federation's intention to block roads because public transport vehicles would only use one lane.

Hearses are expected to meet near the Addolorata Cemetery, taxis at the airport, mini-vans in Ta' Qali and buses in the 45-odd bus termini around the island.

The vehicles are expected to take to the roads at about 10 a.m. - which gives motorists time to get to their workplace - but Mr Spiteri did not exclude leaving earlier if the police do not allow vehicles to remain at the termini, something which, he said, would make matters worse.

On Saturday, the Transport Federation gave the government until 6 a.m. today to withdraw permits for the operation of new hearses and "threats" to liberalise public transport or else face a strike it promised will paralyse the transport system in Malta and Gozo.

However, the government said its decision to end the hearses' monopoly is final and both parties stuck to their stand, notwithstanding a call by the leader of the Labour Party for talks to be held.

"Defending a monopoly in principle because it has always been there is not an acceptable position," a spokesman for the Transport Ministry told The Times.

And the ministry's belief that liberalisation is in the public interest will not change because hearse owners abuse their monopoly, he said.

The row started on Monday, when Cabinet approved a decision to liberalise the hearse sector, allowing the Commerce Division to issue licences to eligible operators and the Malta Transport Authority to issue licences for new, imported hearses that satisfy the necessary criteria.

The decision did not go down well with the Motor Hearses Association, which is arguing that the market is too small to support more operators. There are 12 hearses operating in Malta, double the average number of daily deaths.

Another five associations - representing the buses in Malta and Gozo, mini vans, white taxis and Blue Grotto boats - are rallying behind the hearse owners and have also signalled their intention to strike.

Mr Spiteri said yesterday liberalisation will be a deathblow for the sector.

"We are not going to wait for our deathblow, with one monopoly after the other being removed," he said when asked whether the federation could have started with less harsh actions that would not paralyse the whole country.

Mr Spiteri, who also heads the Public Transport Association, accused Transport Minister Austin Gatt of being irresponsible by proposing liberalisation before discussing the issue with the parties involved.

However, the ministry spokesman insisted that consultation did take place with the hearse owners, who disagreed with liberalisation. He also denied that the ministry was making any threats, saying it was working on the principle that monopolies are not beneficial to the economy.

"Public transport needs to be examined and we are doing that. But that is not a threat," he said.

He remarked that the widespread effect that the strike is likely to have on the people also questions the viability of monopolies.

Labour party leader Joseph Muscat yesterday appealed to the federation not to go ahead with the strike and for the government to discuss the issue with the federation.

Meanwhile, the Health Division said that in the event of a strike, it will be providing emergency transport for all health workers, with those needing transport urged to contact the nurse management of their particular sector.

Transport for the morning shift will leave at 5.30 a.m. and afternoon and evening transport will leave 90 minutes before the shift starts.

Transport leaves from near the police station or the parish church of the different localities. Transport back to towns and villages will also be provided.

The Health Division encouraged workers to share private transport.

The Armed Forces of Malta is also expected to give a helping hand to alleviate problems should the strike take place.

On Saturday, the Transport Ministry encouraged people to help each other by offering lifts to those stranded on bus stops, especially the elderly and those with mobility problems.

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