Donnelly clashed with Watt and Holohan over make-up of group to succeed Nphet

Disagreements centred on terms of reference and membership, documents show

The Minister for Health clashed with senior officials Robert Watt and Dr Tony Holohan over the scope and composition of a group set up to succeed the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), documents show.

Mr Watt, the Department of Health’s secretary general, objected to suggestions Stephen Donnelly made for the terms of reference for the group, which was being established to advise him on Covid-19 after Nphet was stood down, and said it risked cutting across work that had already been commissioned.

After Mr Donnelly sent him suggested terms of reference for the group in early April, Mr Watt said in reply that “this is not (the) intended purpose of this group. What you are proposing is a more fundamental review of pandemic preparedness, which cuts across the already established Brady Group”.

“As Secretary General of the Department, I don’t understand what this means for my role or indeed the role of the [Chief Medical Officer]”.

Mr Donnelly had suggested the group advise on the deployment of “data, surveillance and analytical tools” and “immediate threats or opportunities” relating to Covid. Altered terms of reference were eventually included in the proposal.

Four days later – on the same day the membership of the group was published – Mr Donnelly sent Dr Holohan the final list of members of the group, which he had already made several additions to.

Commitment

Dr Holohan advised Mr Donnelly that the final membership “does not have sufficient representation from public health doctors outside the Department of Health who have been centrally involved in the public health response to Covid-19”.

Citing a commitment by the department to strengthening public health medicine, he said it would be “incongruous” that the holders of two senior positions in the HSE were not included in “such a key leadership group in relation to Public Health”. Neither of the two officials – the National Director for Public Health or the National Lead for Health Protection – were part of the final list published later that day.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act also show that Dr Holohan earlier sought that a key ally of his, Dr Darina O’Flanagan, who was a special adviser to Nphet, be put on the team. However, her name was removed.

Dr O’Flanagan and Dr Lorraine Doherty, one of the senior HSE doctors Dr Holohan suggested for the group, previously dissented from the report of a group on antigen testing set up by the Minister last year.

The first proposal sent to Mr Donnelly, on February 17th, contained just 14 individuals – identified by their roles rather than their names. Mr Watt told the Minister that he supported the proposal, emails show.

Mr Donnelly responded in March with an alternate list, which retained seven of those originally proposed, but dropped several – including Dr O’Flanagan and Dr Cillian De Gascun, the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and a member of Nphet. His name was added to later versions of the list.

In adding names to the list, Mr Donnelly said that he was “keen to capture as much scientific expertise and fresh thinking from as broad a cross-section as I can, while keeping the group manageably small”.

Political presence

The names he suggested included Prof Mary Horgan, a Nphet member; Prof Luke O’Neill, a high profile professor of immunology at Trinity College Dublin; infectious diseases consultant Prof Paddy Mallon; and Prof John Wenger from University College Cork, an expert on “atmospheric chemistry”.

During the email exchanges, Mr Donnelly twice remarked that he wanted to attend meetings of the group and wanted that reflected in documents outlining how it would work. Dr Holohan had previously resisted a political presence on Nphet, under different ministers.

During correspondence which followed, the list swelled to almost double its original size – some 27 names. Some 20 were included in the final group.

At one point Mr Donnelly reiterated that he wanted “as small a group as possible. This proposed group is getting bigger all the time. I have already added some of the names you recommended to the group. We can add more at a later stage, if necessary”.

In the same email, sent on April 6th, the Minister said the announcement should be made the following day. Ultimately, it was made one day after that – mirroring a final list sent by Mr Donnelly. No quote from Dr Holohan appeared in the press release announcing the group.