Updated: Hired ambulances not up to contract specifications
(Adds ministry's, Mater Dei statements)
The Health Department accepted two ambulances which did not meet contractual specifications after being offered drivers at no extra cost, The Sunday Times has learnt.
Sources said the department made the concession to the supplier, which is being paid between €120 and €180 a day for each ambulance, as a temporary measure until urgent repairs are carried out on other vehicles.
The Health Minister at first denied this concession had been granted but later admitted to it after it was pointed out that this newspaper was in possession of an e-mail sent earlier this month from Mater Dei Hospital’s management informing the supplier of this concession.
The ministry then explained that the supplier had run out of ambulances because the compliant ones needed repairs.
The replacement ambulances failed to meet the department’s specific width requirements, though there is no suggestion they were unsafe.
The issue of hired ambulances has created a stir over the past week, with the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses instructing members not to board the vehicles.
The action forced Mater Dei Hospital to replace nurses with doctors when responding to emergencies.
Industrial action escalated on Thursday after it emerged that the ambulances used during Wednesday’s Gudja feast explosion encountered problems.
Blast victim Bjorn Callus, 25, described his ambulance ride as “off-roading”. The vehicle crashed into a central strip, sustained a puncture and arrived at the hospital “practically on the rims”.
Another ambulance arrived on the scene 90 minutes after it was called because the first one that was sent developed a fault on its way.
The nurses’ union said the incident had confirmed fears about the quality of the ambulances, their lack of maintenance and the fact they were being driven by untrained and inexperienced drivers.
The Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin joined the action by instructing ambulance porters not to assist inadequately trained drivers.
The hospital insisted that all hired ambulances complied with European standards and drivers were only recruited after fulfilling the criteria set by the Emergency Admission Department.
According to the MUMN, the vehicles are second-hand ambulances purchased from the UK which have been discarded by the British National Health Service.
They are being imported into Malta and rented out to the health service by Frontline Ambulance Service, a subsidiary of Fire and Security Engineering Limited.
The concession e-mail was sent to the supplier by one of the hospital’s top management personnel, acting on the instructions of the chief executive officer.
“Kindly note that two of the three ambulances hired with registration numbers HSG 400 and IHS 200 are not compliant to the technical specifications regarding only with the width of the ambulance which is more than 2,000m...
“As agreed for a temporary measure these ambulances will be driven by FSA drivers with no extra expense to the (Health) Department until the compliant ambulances with the specs be repaired,” the e-mail stated.
The e-mail was copied to at least 10 other officials at the hospital and at the Health Department.
A ministry spokesman denied that some form of temporary arrangement or concession was given.
“Kindly note that all ambulances hired by Mater Dei Hospital are according to standard EN1789 as is stipulated in the contract. Therefore the claim that ambulances are not being hired according to specs as stipulated in contract is false,” the spokesman said.
He said the department signed the contract in July for the provision of at least two hired ambulances every day and more if any of its current fleet break down.
However, when told The Sunday Times was in possession of an email, the spokesman confirmed that this concession only lasted “three or four days” and that the company’s drivers were supplied free of charge.
Contacted yesterday, FAS Ltd’s Alan Bonnici said it was a “closed case”.
He said he had no further comments to make on claims on the quality of the ambulances his company provides and said The Sunday Times should stick to the ministry’s reply that all ambulances comply with European standards.
MINISTRY, MATER DEI STATEMENTS
In a statement on Sunday, the ministry said that the minister had never spoken to or corresponded with the journalist about the case.
It said that the ministry spokesman never denied that a wider concession on the use of ambulances had been made.
The ministry insisted that every decision was taken in the best interest of patients.
In another statement, Mater Dei Hospital reiterated that an inquiry into the ambulance incidents that took place during the Gudja feast was taking place.