Watt accused of ‘breathtaking arrogance’ over proposed Holohan secondment

Committee examining plan for Dr Holohan to move to new role at Trinity College

Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt has been accused of "breathtaking arrogance" over the proposed secondment of chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan to an academic post.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said Mr Watt was committing €2 million annual spending to Trinity College Dublin for the post without any ministerial or Government approval.

Mr Watt felt he had the authority to commit in a letter to TCD to spending of €20 million over 10 years "and not even inform the Minister when he was doing media on the issue," Mr Cullinane told the Oireachtas health committee.

Mr Watt replied that the spending had not been approved at this stage, and would ultimately have to be included in the estimates process and approved by the Minister when a detailed set of proposals for the post had been drawn up.

He said the Minister had been made aware that a secondment was being planned for Mr Holohan, and that it was part of a proposal to enhance public health funding at third level.

Mr Donnelly “got the details” as soon as he sought them.

The committee is examining the plan for Dr Holohan to move to the role of professor of public health strategy and leadership at TCD.

His open-ended secondment, which was abandoned after controversy, would have been paid by the Department of Health, via the Health Research Board.

Mr Watt said the Minister was not aware of the proposed €2 million annual funding for the post when he was asked about the issue in a radio interview in early April.

The only people aware of a letter of intent sent to TCD on the post in mid-March were himself, Dr Holohan and the HR manager in the department.

Mr Donnelly remained unaware of this letter at the time the department issued a letter announcing Dr Holohan’s retirement on March 25th, and was only told of it the following week, the committee heard.

Mr Cullinane told Mr Watt “you lost the run of yourself” by making a decision that should have been made by a Minister and had “over-reached” himself by committing money “without any oversight”.

“You failed in your duty,” he told the witness.

Mr Watt replied he did not accept this “characterisation” and said the arrangement was fully in line with Government policy to enhance public health capacity.

The Minister knew the “generality” of the proposal but wasn’t involved in the details, Mr Watt told Sean Kyne TD. “With the benefit of hindsight we should have done it differently.”

At the time, Covid-19 was still prevalent and there was a concern that the departure of the chief medical officer not be leaked prematurely.

“We were bounced into making a statement earlier than we had hoped.”

Dr Holohan, who plans to retire as CMO in July, told the committee the department had given full support to this plans “from the get-go”.

Asked if he might still take up a role in the university sector, Dr Holohan said: “When I saw the way that the concerns that were being expressed in public were going, I thought it was important that I made an early decision that I would not proceed in the role.”

He did not want civil servants and politicians “diverted” by the issue and had no desire to see TCD drawn into any suggestion of “impropriety or controversy”.

Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart asked if he could be persuaded to "think again" about a third level post.

“Nobody thus far has sought to persuade me”, Dr Holohan replied.

Mr Lahart said this wasn’t a “no”.

“No - it wasn’t a ‘no’,” Dr Holohan agreed.