(see article by arnold cassola)
Shortages of basic necessities such as bandages and suppositories are "becoming the order of the day" in the medical wards of St Luke's Hospital as nurses battle to do their job despite being understaffed.
The situation is further exacerbated by the problem of overcrowding, with nurses often having to face the wrath of unfortunate patients who line the corridors with no privacy.
"Because of overcrowding, some patients have to lie on old, rickety beds (which are not adjustable) with no privacy. We have to wash the patient in full view. Patients are being stripped of their dignity," one nurse said.
This nurse is one of about 40 who yesterday walked out on strike for two hours between 9.30 and 11.30 a.m. to protest the deteriorating situation in the wards.
The strike, ordered by the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, was intended to jolt the health authorities into implementing an agreement signed in March 1999 to ensure there was an adequate number of nurses to deal with patients.
As the striking nurses gathered outside St Luke's, MUMN president Rudolph Cini said that the two most senior nurses in each ward had been directed not to strike in the patients' interests.
Mr Cini told the press that unless this agreement was put into operation within a week, the union would consider taking a tougher stand.
In the meantime, the nurses are working to rule to focus on patients' needs and the union does not rule out further action.
The agreement lays down that the Hospitals Department will take all the necessary steps to ensure that the number of social cases was kept to a minimum.
However, union general secretary Colin Galea said the number of social cases - patients who can be discharged but remain in hospital because nobody can care for them - in the eight medical wards stood at 60.
Another clause stipulates there should be a minimum of six nurses in every medical ward for 30 patients. At the moment there is an average of three to four nurses for about 38 patients.
"We are facing a problem of overcrowding in summer. Can you imagine what it will be like in winter when more people fall ill?" Mr Cini asked.
The medical wards in St Luke's take in patients suffering from asthma, heart problems, carcinoma, alcohol or drug abuse or a suicidal victim who needs to be under constant watch, among others.
The union had also been promised a number of nurses who would form part of a relieving pool to reduce the burden on nurses in overcrowded wards - but this was not forthcoming.
The situation could be improved if the government employed the 65 newly qualified nurses who had been approved and issued with a licence from the Council for Nurses and Midwives.
"Instead these nurses have been told to register with the Employment and Training Corporation, when state hospitals need at least 140 more nurses," he said.
On Wednesday, the Office of the Prime Minister said the government had decided to employ nurses in the public sector depending on the exigencies rather than according to the number who graduate successfully.
It said the Health Division was conducting a detailed exercise to identify the sectors where the nurses were needed and then it would employ accordingly.
When contacted yesterday, Director General for Health Ray Busuttil agreed that there was a need for more nurses, but the precise amount required was being worked out and employed accordingly.
"This should not be a long process," Dr Busuttil said.
The union organised a meeting for these 65 graduate nurses yesterday afternoon to discuss the matter.
The nurses claimed that due to lack of funds they were having to use old equipment, such as stretchers, which could pose a danger to the patients' safety.
One nurse said that he would have made a requisition of 10 boxes of either gauze, syringes, surgical gloves or bandages and he be given just five.
"We have reached a situation where anything goes - you cannot economise on people's health," the nurses insisted.