Howlin knew BTSB was not co-operating with expert group


THE former Minister for Health, Mr Howlin, has admitted he did not intervene when he discovered that the expert group he had set up to investigate the Hepatitis C scandal was having trouble getting information from the Blood Transfusion Service Board in 1994.

Mr Howlin yesterday told the tribunal of inquiry into the contamination he knew the expert group was not getting co-operation from BTSB officials. But he felt it would have been "totally improper" for him to intervene. Instead he appointed a new, experienced, chairman to the board of the BTSB and he "subsequently heard" that the situation had improved.

Mr Howlin also said he had never had any intention of setting up a tribunal of inquiry once he had appointed the expert group.

The Minister's handling of the controversy was repeatedly called into question yesterday during 31/2 hours of cross-examination. But Mr Howlin said that a "good job" had been done in response to a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The tribunal heard that the expert group, chaired by Dr Miriam Hederman O'Brien, was set up in "March 1994, just weeks after the scandal, broke.

It was not until September, said Mr Howlin, that he found out the expert group was having difficulties getting information from the BTSB. Conflicting evidence has been heard about the decision to set up an expert group rather than a tribunal from Department officials and the Minister's special adviser, Dr Tim Collins.

But Mr Howlin said yesterday he had debated fully the "pros and cons" of both options with the officials. He denied he had received a strong recommendation from Mr Donal Devitt, assistant Department secretary, to set up a tribunal.

"I think very few people in the country in February 1994 would have readily said a tribunal of inquiry [following the beef tribunal] would have efficiently and effectively got at the truth of this matter," said Mr Howlin. The expert, group, he had believed, would do just that.

He said he had never even considered that a tribunal might be later set up. "If I had thought that it would have been totally counter to my attitude and intent. My intent was to put in place the best investigating vehicle," he said.

The tribunal also heard that while taking the decision on how to investigate the scandal, Mr Howlin knew the BTSB had breached protocols in using patient X's plasma to make anti-D in 1976, after she suffered an episode of jaundice.

"I felt once the expert group was in place they would get at the truth," he said.

Mr James Nugent SC, counsel for the Tribunal, put a number of questions to the Minister about his decision to allow so much responsibility to the BTSB in dealing with a scandal it had effectively caused.

Mr Howlin said he did not recall being informed by officials that eight women were given anti-D following the withdrawal order on February 18th, 1994. He agreed with Mr Nugent that he should have been told.

Mr Nugent asked the Minister if he checked up on information given to him by the BTSB on the replacement anti-D product from Canada, which did not have FDA approval. Mr Howlin said he had not checked.