Nurses have been instructed not to administer the influenza vaccine from today, prompting warnings from the health minister that this could have potentially fatal consequences.

In a surprise circular sent to its members on Saturday afternoon, the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses urged nurses not to administer the seasonal vaccine under any circumstances.

The directive was actually issued a few weeks ago to all primary health care nurses in a dispute the MUMN has with the government over meal allowances and the extra leave given to workers in lieu of public holidays on weekends.

Contacted last night, Health Minister Chris Fearne said failing to give the flu vaccine would put patients’ lives at risk, especially this year with the real threat of COVID-19 and influenza co-infection.

The health division usually stocks 100,000 free influenza vaccines for the vulnerable population but this year 200,000 doses are on order for the anticipated high public demand. Influenza typically affects about 20 per cent of the population. The influenza vaccine was meant to start being administered for free to everyone who asks for it from today in specialised centres that will be set up in every town. The centres will be open every day.

The MUMN statement, signed by president Paul Pace, urged members not to accept any change of roster to administer any vaccine or when working on overtime.

It urged members not to let management intimidate them and to report to the MUMN any such attempts.

“Contrary to what is being told by the nursing management to certain nurses, there is no agreement with the Health Division,” the statement said.

Pace told Times of Malta that an extra meal allowance had been given to all nurses except for those in primary health care.

As to the extra leave, the union is demanding that nurses working a shift of 12 hours be given 12 hours extra leave and not just eight, as applies to workers on normal working hours. It has been asking for those extra hours ever since the government introduced the new measure in 2017, he said.

Pace said the service would be disrupted unless the government acceded to its justified request.

“Nurses are making big sacrifices because of COVID-19. A lot of them have lost pay and are afraid of infecting their children. We don’t just want applause. We want what is rightfully ours.”

The minister said the MUMN, like any other union, has a right to resort to industrial action.

“I will be the first to protect that right. However, any action taken needs to be proportionate. Ordering members to refuse to administer the flu vaccine, especially this year, in my view is disproportionate to the industrial issues concerned.”

The Primary Healthcare Department on Sunday said the nurses' industrial action may disrupt vaccination. It apologised to people calling at health centres and urged them to follow directions. 

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