Updated 5.40pm with ministry statement

A union’s order instructing nurses to refuse admission of new patients into the St Vincent de Paul care home has been frozen by a court.

The directive, issued last August by the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, has effectively led to almost 200 beds lying vacant at the state-run care home and caused a significant rift between the union and government.

In a decision on Friday, judge Neville Camilleri upheld a court application for a temporary injunction filed by the Active Ageing Ministry earlier in the day.

The MUMN is expected to put up a fight to have that decision reversed and now have five days to present its legal arguments to that effect. 

Sources told Times of Malta that the government intends to start filling vacant beds at St Vincent de Paul with immediate effect, transferring people who are being held at Mater Dei Hospital to the Luqa care home. 

A months-long battle

The ministry resorted to court action after attempts to resolve the impasse through talks failed to get off the ground.

The MUMN issued the bed-blocking directive after one of its members was suspended from his job over the disappearance of Carmelo Fino, an 83-year-old resident at St Vincent de Paul who wandered out of the state-run care home in the middle of the night and was found dead two weeks later.

An independent inquiry found that the nurse, two carers and four security officers failed their duty. It also found that the nurse had misguided the search. All of them were suspended, and a controversy ensued.

MUMN President Paul Pace called the inquiry a fake and a sham and insisted the minister, Jo Etienne Abela, was framing the nurse to shirk his own responsibility.

Following that, the union showered the government with directives that prevent government care homes from admitting new elderly people, among others.

But earlier this week, minister Abela told Times of Malta the industrial action has gone too far. The union is holding a gun to his head with directives that are threatening to paralyse the health system, he said.

10% of hospital beds needlessly taken up

To ease the waiting list for the most urgent cases, the government is renting out 80 beds in private homes, each of which cost around €25,000 annually, while 178 beds in St Vincent de Paul lie empty and beds at Mater Dei continue to be needlessly occupied by elderly people who have been cured but cannot be transferred to a care home.

And as temperatures plummet and the annual influx of patients with influenza and chest infections looms over Mater Dei, hospital authorities fear they will reach a saturation point within weeks.

Senior sources told Times of Malta that 10% of beds across Mater Dei and Paul Boffa hospital are already occupied by patients who do not need to be there.

No regards to health, safety of nurses, residents - MUMN

In a statement, the MUMN accused Abela of "hiding behind the law courts with no regards to the health and safety of the residents at SVP and to the nurses". 

The minister, the union said, wanted to allow the suspension "of a framed nurse" to continue, even though the nurse was never charged or accused of any crime and was never interrogated. 

The MUMN said that because of the injunction, nurses working at SVP and other homes for the elderly are again expected to work against all odds with one nurse caring for 37 patients at SVP and for 80 residents at other homes.

'We're calling Pace's bluff' - ministry

A spokesperson at the Active Ageing Ministry said that its hard was forced by MUMN president Paul Pace treating senior citizens "like pawns".

Pace had refused seven separate invitations to meet with the minister, the spokesperson said, adding that it was now time to call the union boss' "bluff". 

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