Call for Watt to explain Sláintecare comments imminent after recording released

Department of Health official 'worried' about regionalisation process, report says

The most senior civil servant in the Department of Health is to be asked to explain comments on the implementation of Sláintecare, reported in a weekend newspaper.

The Business Post reported on Sunday that Robert Watt, the secretary general of the department, had been secretly recorded earlier this year discussing the HSE's budget and implementation of the multi-year plan to reform the health service.

Members of the Oireachtas Health Committee, which Mr Watt is due to meet on Wednesday, said they intended to raise the tapes with him. The newspaper reported that Mr Watt had told officials he was worried about "endless claims" from healthcare unions during restructuring processes envisaged in the plan, including the regionalisation of the health service.

According to the newspaper, Mr Watt told a meeting that he was “increasingly worried” about the how industrial relations might interact with devolution of powers to regional healthcare authorities, the proposed approach under Sláintecare.

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“I think we need to start off with a minimalist approach to restructuring – to minimise a lot of these potential problems, and then work from there,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Róisín Shortall, the Social Democrats co-leader, and David Cullinane, the Sinn Féin health spokesman, raised concerns following the publication of the comments. Both have clashed with Mr Watt at the health committee over the pace of reforms planned under Sláintecare, after the programme was hit with several high-profile resignations last year.

Mr Watt is also reported to have said he was concerned about oversight of “big lumps of money sloshing around” in the HSE and that the department needed “sharper elbows” when dealing with unions.

‘Highly concerning’

Ms Shortall said that she believed Mr Watt, in his former role as secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, would have been aware of the need for radical reform in the health system.

“I would therefore have expected him to embrace that key element of Sláintecare, which is about establishing regional structures for the HSE so that we can see where money is going and there can be legal accountability of senior management for the spending of budgets,” she said.

Mr Cullinane said the comments were of “a highly concerning nature” and said he believed they indicated the department is “working to a minimalist plan” on Sláintecare reforms. He said he expected that Mr Watt “will take the opportunity to clear the air when he is before the health committee on Wednesday”.

Ms Shortall called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to clarify who is setting policy direction in the department.

“It’s supposed to be the Minister who sets the policy and the civil servants who implements it, not the other way around, and it would be helpful if Minister Donnelly clarified which it is in respect of the Sláintecare reform programme,” she said.

In a statement, the Department of Health said no consent had been given for the recording, which it considers a “direct violation of individual privacy”, and it “strongly believes that quoting the casual comments of individuals will only serve to limit constructive debate and dialogue across the civil service and this is damaging to the public interest.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times