Private school says Beacon Hospital said vaccination of its staff ‘had HSE permission’

HSE says it ‘certainly did not approve’ of move to give surplus doses to school staff

A spokeswoman for the Beacon had no comment on Tuesday when asked about the claim of HSE permission. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

A spokeswoman for the Beacon had no comment on Tuesday when asked about the claim of HSE permission. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The private school at the centre of the Beacon Hospital Covid-19 vaccine controversy has insisted it was assured by the hospital that the vaccination of 20 of its teachers and staff “had HSE permission” and was appropriate.

Last week, 20 teachers and staff in St Gerard’s, a fee-paying school just outside Bray, Co Wicklow, received “leftover” vaccines in the private hospital. The children of Beacon chief executive Michael Cullen attend the school.

St Gerard’s had declined to comment to date but it said in a letter to parents on Tuesday that the individuals in the school who dealt with the matter and those who received the vaccines did so in good faith.

“The fact that the board of the Beacon Hospital has now confirmed that the decision to offer the vaccines ‘was not in line with the sequencing guidelines in place from the HSE’ is deeply concerning,” said John Behan, chairman of the school’s board of directors.

A spokeswoman for the Beacon had no comment on Tuesday when asked about the claim of HSE permission, saying all matters linked to its vaccination programme were subject to a review by Eugene McCague, former managing partner of Arthur Cox solicitors.

However, the HSE was quick to dismiss the Beacon’s apparent claim that the executive had given permission to give school staff the vaccines. “These vaccines were administered contrary to our very clear guidelines and we certainly did not approve them,” the HSE said.

Mr Behan said the school’s board apologised for the school’s role in the affair, saying it “appreciates the hurt and anger that has been caused” in the school and the wider community. “The board will work to rebuild trust and will ensure that no incident like this can happen again.”

Mr Behan set out the sequence of events one week ago that led to 20 teachers and staff receiving Covid-19 vaccines at the Beacon, an incident that prompted severe criticism of the hospital by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and led to calls for the removal of Mr Cullen from his post.

Mr Behan’s letter sets out how the vaccinations were organised via phone calls and text messages over the course of 45 minutes in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 23rd, when five and then more surplus vaccines became available.

“It is important to state that no person acting on behalf of the school sought early access to vaccines under the vaccination programme being run by the Beacon Hospital or by any other hospital.

“On the contrary, the school received unsolicited contact from the CEO of the Beacon Hospital at approximately 4.15pm on Tuesday last . . . to see whether five members of staff would be available at short notice to receive vaccines which would go to waste if not used by 6pm that evening.

“It was explained to the school that these doses were left over as a result of a scheduling error involving a vaccination clinic at the hospital which had run that day.”

‘Need for urgency’

Mr Behan said the principal of St Gerard’s junior school was assured on this call and subsequently “that the use of vaccines in this manner, which would otherwise go to waste, was appropriate and had HSE permission”. He added: “The need for urgency was emphasised.”

The school received a further text and phone call from the hospital over the following 45 minutes informing it that an additional five doses had been identified. Then, at 5pm the school was told that another 10 doses had been identified, bringing the total number of doses available to 20.

The school employs more than 100 staff, Mr Behan said. With limited time available, the principal of the junior school and the headmaster of the secondary school each contacted a number of staff and “organised for 10 from each school to travel to the hospital” for vaccines.

“The board appreciates that during the current pandemic, the administration of vaccines is a matter of great sensitivity and importance.

“However, we are satisfied that the individuals in the school who dealt with this matter and those who received the vaccines did so in good faith, having had a number of assurances that using the vaccines in this manner in order to avoid waste had HSE permission,” Mr Behan said.

In a letter sent in to Joe Duffy on RTÉ radio, a teacher at the school said they were “utterly devastated and angry about what has taken place”.

The teacher stated in the letter: “ I just want to make the point that it is not all the teachers at St Gerard’s. It is a very small minority of them. They have to live with this. The vast majority had no part in this and yet are being tarred with the same brush.

“The chosen colleagues [who got the vaccine] never told or shared this information with the rest of us. The rest of the teachers and staff only learned of this appalling affair from the breaking news on Friday morning.”

The teacher added: “Teachers and their extended families and staff are innocent of this scandal and have had to endure text messages and phone calls all weekend asking them if they have skipped the queue and taken the vaccine.

“We should not be expected to carry the can . . . I do not accept these vaccines were going to waste. I can swear I would not have taken the vaccine had I been offered it. I am fit and healthy and I am frustrated that my own elderly relatives have not yet been vaccinated.

“It is a disgrace, it should never have been happened.”

Mr Cullen is facing a review by Mr McCague of the decision to vaccinate teachers from the private school as the hospital board comes under mounting Government pressure to deal decisively with the affair.

Apology

As Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Monday hit out at the private hospital over the incident, saying its actions were “repugnant”, the Beacon board apologised unreservedly on Monday evening for the “upset caused by the vaccination of teachers” from St Gerard’s school.

But the hospital directors, in their statement released on Monday evening, stopped short of any immediate public sanction against Mr Cullen, and moved instead to seek an independent review by Mr McCague.

The debacle has already led the Government to suspend the operation of the hospital’s vaccination programme.

Records in the Register of Lobbying show that Mr Cullen lobbied Stephen Donnelly last year soon after he took office as Minister for Health.

Mr Cullen’s call with the Minister was to “discuss how future models of public body interaction with private hospitals could be structured”. The aim was to “deliver maximum benefit for patients and more value for money for the State while also allowing the hospitals to plan for this appropriately”.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy on Tuesday called for a Garda investigation to establish if there was criminality in the “misappropriation of public resources” in the vaccination incident and for the resignation of the hospital’s chief executive.

Mr Murphy described what happened at the Beacon as “jabs for the boys”.

He said that “the idea that you have an independent investigation set up by themselves to investigate Michael Cullen” when he “subverted” the vaccination priority list was “absolutely scandalous”. There had to be a “genuinely independent inquiry” by the HSE with the involvement of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and patient groups “to see if other vaccines were misappropriated”.

Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall said the “egregious breaches” of vaccination priority list guidelines by the Beacon Hospital has hugely undermined the Covid-19 vaccination programme and must be accounted for by the HSE.

She also demanded that HSE chief executive Paul Reid explain the disparity in figures showing that 250,000 frontline healthcare workers had been inoculated when “we don’t have that number of forward-facing healthcare workers”.

Ms Shortall said “there’s a need for accounting by Paul Reid” of the disparity in the vaccine figures and of the actions of the Beacon Hospital.

There are an estimated 80,000 frontline healthcare employees, including those working in so-called section 38 and 39 agencies who are not directly employed by the HSE. But the health service issued figures stating that more than 200,000 frontline healthcare workers had been vaccinated against Covid-19.