Mater Dei Hospital is the only acute treatment centre for the ever-growing Maltese population. Few can deny it is stretched to the limit and whenever an emergency erupts the standard of the treatment offered is put at risk.

The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses says its members are reporting that preparations seem to be under way to cater for the possible evacuation of injured Libyan citizens caught in the civil war that is escalating at a fast rate in their country. This had happened in the past when the North African country faced similar political unrest and violence.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of Health deny any such preparations are being made.

The fact that a trade union representing nursing staff and the health authorities disagree on what is truly happening and, by implication, what the hospital can or cannot do if Libyan patients were to be flown here for treatment shows how far employer and employee relations have soured in the health system.

The MUMN gave its reasons for opposing any move that would mean Mater Dei having to deal with even more patients.

Hospitals are meant to have no more than 85 per cent of beds occupied to minimise the risk of infections and delays in treatment. This occupancy mark is an internationally recognised level that hospitals are advised to stick to so they can manage the risk of infections and ensure they have spare capacity to deal with major on-the-day emergencies.

With the outbreak of flu this winter, Mater Dei was stretched to the limits, with patients occasionally having to wait to be allocated a bed in a ward. Admitting more patients in significant numbers in our acute hospital for injury treatment and, possibly, with infections contracted in a foreign country may be the straw that will break the camel’s back.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said Malta is one of the few countries with the credibility to speak to all sides in the Libyan conflict. This statement could be a valid political argument. However, it will make very little difference, if at all, should emergency medical services be offered to injured Libyan citizens when the healthcare resources are already stretched, as the MUMN insists they are. In such an eventuality, bigger countries that have much more extensive medical facilities could be approached and convinced to assist. The credibility mentioned by Dr Muscat could come in handy in this regard.

The Prime Minister described the union’s concern as “speculation” because no request has so far been made for medical assistance by the Libyan authorities. Still, he did not say what the medical authorities would do if such a request were to be made and, given the unfolding situation in Libya, this can happen any moment.

One can understand the authorities may not be willing to share publicly certain ‘intelligence’ in their possession but, surely, they can take the MUMN, whose members will be the first to be affected by any decisions to treat Libyan patients, in their confidence to be able to plan better.

The possible treatment of Libyan patients is not just a political issue. It is also about hospital managers’ priorities in serving the community while dealing with an added ‘humanitarian’ burden

The well-being and safety of hospital staff and patients must always be top priority.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial