Coombe vaccine controversy rumbles on with flurry of letters

Fallout from Covid-19 jabs for staff relatives sparks criticism and counter-criticism amid flurry of letters

Coombe hospital: controversial vaccination of relatives of staff

Coombe hospital: controversial vaccination of relatives of staff

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The fallout from the Coombe’s controversial vaccination of relatives of staff has continued with a flurry of acrimonious letters involving the chair of the hospital’s board, one of its consultants, her husband and a Government Minister.

Criticism voiced by Deirdre Murphy, professor of obstetrics at Trinity College Dublin and a consultant at the Dublin maternity hospital, about the January 8th vaccinations of relatives with leftover Covid-19 doses – jumping ahead in a queue that was then prioritising healthcare workers and nursing home residents – has sparked an angry response from the chair of the hospital board.

Prof Michael O’Connell, master of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital on Cork Street, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Prof Michael O’Connell, master of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital on Cork Street, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

That, along with a fraught meeting of medical consultants and some members of the hospital’s board in April, infuriated Prof Murphy’s GP husband, Tom Fahey, a professor of general practice at the Royal College of Surgeons.

On Monday, Prof Fahey complained to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly about the hospital’s treatment of his wife over her concerns, copying this letter and letters involving his wife and the hospital to HSE chief executive Paul Reid and Dr Rita Doyle, the president of the Irish Medical Council.

The dispute stems from a letter Prof Murphy sent to the board on April 7th where she called for the resignation of the Coombe’s master, Prof Michael O’Connell, and one of the staff members who had family members vaccinated late that Friday night in January.

‘Mistakes’

On publication of a report by lawyer Brian Kennedy into the vaccinations, published on April 1st, the hospital board admitted “mistakes” were made and that actions were being taken to ensure no repetition.

But Prof Murphy wants further action, sharing her April 7th letter with other consultants and hospital colleagues, and raising her concerns with Mr Donnelly and Mr Reid.

In response to Prof Murphy’s April 7th letter, Mary Donovan, the board’s chair, said that her decision to circulate her concerns more widely was “entirely inappropriate”. She also raised concerns with Prof Murphy about her letters being reproduced in articles in The Irish Times.

Ms Donovan accused her of seeking to “undermine” the board’s authority and the Coombe’s “good governance”, saying that her actions had caused “reputational damage” to the hospital.

Her letter ended with what has been interpreted by Prof Murphy and her husband as a warning: “As an employee of the Coombe there are avenues available for you to raise your concerns internally and these must be followed.”

On April 20th, Prof Murphy replied to Ms Donovan defending the voicing of her concerns, saying that they were “very clear concerns persisting around governance”.

“No institution should be above questioning, and no individual should be threatened for posing valid questions,” Prof Murphy told Ms Donovan.

The vaccines had belonged to the HSE and Mr Donnelly had overall responsibility for vaccinations, and both he and Mr Reid were entitled to know about what she believes to be deficiencies in the report, which contained “omissions and inconsistencies”, she claimed. Prof Murphy had raised concerns with Mr Kennedy and the board about how the hospital had overlooked 39 Trinity medical students on standby for vaccines and other frontline hospital staff.

‘Sorry episode’

“The reputational damage to the hospital has been caused by those who chose to vaccinate their family members and those who felt unable to question the inappropriate leadership demonstrated on the night in question,” she told Ms Donovan. “It would be helpful if the board focused on the source of the problem rather than on an individual who is attempting to salvage some integrity from this sorry episode.”

The attendance of three non-medical Coombe board members – Ms Donovan, lawyer John Gleeson and business consultant Theresa Daly – at an April 20th meeting of medical consultants of the Coombe led Prof Murphy’s husband, Prof Fahey, to write to Mr Donnelly.

He alleged that the letter from Ms Donovan and the attendance of the non-medical board members at the meeting was to “threaten” and “isolate” Prof Murphy, in effect attempting to silence her.

“That it is happening to a senior female obstetrician in one of the State’s maternity hospitals dedicated to the care of women and their babies is grotesque,” he wrote.

Asked about Prof Fahey’s remarks about the April 20th meeting, a Coombe spokeswoman said: “Reflecting the seriousness with which the vaccination issue was and is being treated, members of the board attended meetings on the matter with all staff cohorts, including consultants.”

Prof Fahey told the Minister that Prof Murphy “raised issues of genuine public concern in relation to the improper administration of the vaccine, including the CEO/master’s failure to contact TCD students who were eligible for Covid vaccination on that day.” He noted that another consultant at the Coombe, Prof Chris Fitzpatrick, a former master of the hospital, said he had not received similar correspondence, despite also publicly calling for the master to resign.

“Why has the Coombe board decided to single out a senior female obstetrician?” he asked.

In response to queries from The Irish Times, the Coombe said the board “takes what occurred extremely seriously and has started a process to address the implications”.

“As that process is ongoing, the hospital has no further comment,” a spokeswoman said. A HSE spokesperson said the chief executive, Paul Reid, had no comment.

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