Harris to seek extra powers to allow patient safety inquiries

Minister says he remains concerned about circumstances of death of Malak Thawley

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he accepted the High Court's decision in the case relating to Malak Thawley but would now seek additional powers to allow him conduct patient safety inquiries.

And despite the court's decision to uphold the challenge by the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to his proposed investigation into Ms Thawley's death while under its care, he said he would seek to continue inquiries into her death through other means.

“Today I asked my department to consider amendments to the patient safety Bill to make sure that I or any future health minister has sufficient investigative powers where an issue does go wrong in relation to our health service,” Mr Harris told journalists at the Fine Gael think-in in Galway.

“I also intend to move ahead in finding another modality to externally examine this issue,” he added.


Mr Harris said he remained committed to the relocation of the NMH to the St Vincent’s hospital campus and his officials were due to report to him shortly on the governance model for the new hospital.

However, he indicated he wished to see new powers for the minister under law to supervise hospitals.

“I think there is a broader issue here. If you are the minister for health of the day and you have a concern and your officials put a file on your desk that says, ‘There is a concern here, minister, and we have to get answers to it,’ we need to make sure on behalf of all our citizens that we have the tools at our disposal to get those answers and that’s why I’ll now look at doing that legislatively,” he said.

He said he respected the findings of the court about the process, and would now seek to change that process.

Court ruling

The Minister said he accepted the High Court ruling on Thursday which found he had no reasonable basis for directing an inquiry by the Health Information and Quality Authority under health legislation into the death of Ms Thawley in May 2016.

He said he had also asked the department to examine the court judgment with a view to bringing forward proposals to amend planned patient safety legislation “to ensure that sufficient powers are available to any future Minister for Health to ensure investigations can be expeditiously conducted where there is the potential to improve patient safety”.

The future of the €300 million move of the NMH to St Vincent’s had been thrown into doubt in recent months after department officials ceased attending planning meetings once the maternity hospital launched its legal action to quash the inquiry into Ms Thawley’s death.

The department said in private correspondence to the NMH in July that it “simply must consider what impact your response to the Minister’s various attempts to address his concerns arising from the extremely serious patient safety incidents have on future corporate governance of the hospital”.

Mr Harris said on Thursday: “I remain committed to the National Maternity Hospital relocation project and this project is included in our capital plan. This will be one of the largest capital projects to be undertaken over the period of the plan. It is therefore appropriate that the legal and governance arrangements associated with this investment by the State are robust.”

A spokesman for the NMH said: “There is a detailed project design, enabling works have now commenced, there is a firm time line towards completion and we believe the new hospital can be delivered on schedule.”

The planned new NMH is expected to be completed in 2022.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times