A judge has urged the MUMN nursing union and the health authorities to reopen talks on pending issues as the court heard both parties present arguments on directives for industrial action issued by the union. 

Two weeks ago, the court provisionally blocked the union from taking industrial action after the Health Ministry sought an injunction, arguing that the directives were too far-reaching and disproportionate. 

At the end of Monday's court sitting, Mr Justice Ian Spiteri Bailey appealed to both parties to keep lines of communication open and not end discussions the minute they disagreed on an issue. He expressed concern that attempts to set up conciliation meetings before matters escalated had failed. 

“I want both of you to hear what I’m saying now and understand that this will not impact my eventual judgment. The law is not going to solve your problems,” he said. “You need to solve this between yourselves. You both carry a huge burden on your shoulders that one must respect and acknowledge. On the one hand, the state provides a free healthcare system and on the other, we have the people who are on the ground providing an essential service.”

“You both know this is true and you both know that you cannot survive without each other. So I implore you, sit down together, make a list of priorities and start ticking them off. Don’t stop because you disagree on a single issue. Someone needs to grab both of you by the collar and sit you down at a table,” Spiteri Bailey continued. 

“My eventual judgement will very likely not please either one of you, but regardless of my judgement, you will still be left with the same problems you have highlighted today. So I am appealing to you as a citizen to sort this out because it benefits all of us if you do.” 

The issues 

Appearing for the ministry, lawyer Alex Sciberras gave a timeline of how during discussions on sectoral agreements with the union, the MUMN had asked for pensions at a certain scale not to be capped and for a ten per cent tax rate to be applied to income earned through overtime. This he said, was a legislative issue, and such issues could not be regulated by sectoral agreements but through legislative changes. 

He said the union had also proceeded to raise health and safety issues regarding the nurse-to-patient ratio, issuing industrial action after refusing to meet with ministry officials to address the issue. 

The industrial action, which included a refusal to admit new patients at a number of facilities to preserve the patient-to-nurse ratio, was harmful to patients’ health and endangered their lives. 

Appearing for the MUMN, lawyer Chris Cilia countered that firstly, the ministry had no right to block directives at St Vincent De Paul, Karin Grech Hospital and Gozo General hospital as these are run by Steward Health Care. 

Secondly, directives at St Vincent de Paul Home, Karin Grech and Mount Carmel hospitals did not endanger patients’ lives, as thesedid not handle urgent medical emergencies. 

Meanwhile, at Mater Dei hospital, the directives issued there ordered nurses working in operating theatres to stop for a break between midday and 2 pm and not to leave the ward to accompany patients unless a ratio of one nurse to five patients is maintained. 

Cilia said the union had been careful not to endanger patients when issuing directives. But it had a right to cause an inconvenience to hospital management in order to fight for better working conditions for its members. 

While the shortage of nurses was not a new problem, Cilia continued, it was not the hospital management that faced criminal and civil action when patients died or injured themselves. Such incidents, like the case of senior Mount Carmel nurse Joe Pace, were occurring because nurses were absent from their posts, not through negligence, but because they could not keep up with the needs of all the patients assigned to them. 

The Health Ministry was also represented by lawyers Aaron Galea Cavallazzi and Paula Cauchi.

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