Taoiseach calls for ‘pause’ ahead of report on Holohan secondment

Varadkar says he had ‘assumed’ CMO applied for professor role in Trinity College Dublin

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has called for a "pause" and "reassessment" around the planned secondment of Dr Tony Holohan to Trinity College before the Government receives a report on the process next week.

Speaking in Helsinki, Mr Martin said there must be transparency around the move.

Dr Holohan was announced as the professor of public health strategy and leadership at Trinity on March 25th, a role which will involve learning the lessons of Covid and preparing for future health challenges.

The appointment sparked controversy this week when it emerged in recent days that the Department of Health would fund the role and continue to pay Dr Holohan’s annual salary of €187,000.

A private meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Health on Thursday heard that Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt signed off on the secondment.

“I’ve asked the Minister for Health for the full report on the entire process that led up to this appointment and the Minister has asked the secretary general of the Department of Health for that report,” said the Taoiseach.

“There seems to be have been a number of strands to this, in respect of a research strand. We all understand the merit in creating additional capacity to create a research platform around pandemic preparedness, given the experiences that we’ve had over the last two years.

“Clearly the CMO [chief medical officer] was in a very pivotal position in that regard. But there has to be transparency. There has to be good process and procedure. I don’t see this as just a human resource issue or a personnel issue in its own right, which I can understand.

“In officialdom that would be one perspective, but there is a research perspective to this, there is a more medium term perspective to this. And in my view, there should be a pause, there be a reassessment as to how the objectives that are behind this can be realised in a better and more transparent way. The report will come in a number of days.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Friday said he had “assumed” Dr Holohan had applied for the Trinity role after a position came up, but that it now appeared “more complicated than that”.

The nature of how the appointment was made “could have been better handled quite frankly,” he said. The Fine Gael leader said he expected the report into the matter would only take a number of days, and would be finished next week.

“Because it does involve taxpayers’ money we think it’s appropriate that the appointment should be paused for a short period while we can find out exactly how it came about, and assure ourselves that procedures were correctly followed,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said “there may not have been” a need for Dr Holohan to move into the academic position on secondment from the Department of Health, which was one aspect the review would examine.

“Nobody in Government is happy about this because even though we were not involved in it in any way, inevitably these things do reflect on us,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said the secondment of Dr Holohan was a “very different situation” to the previous controversial - and later abandoned – proposed appointment of former minister Katherine Zappone to a UN special envoy role.

“That was a ministerial appointment in which Ministers were involved, this is not, this is a public appointment involving public and civil servants in which Ministers are not involved,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin health spokesman, David Cullinane, said Mr Watt should clarify his role in the process rather than be involved in producing a report on the matter requested by Government.

“I think we need an examination from others, other than the people involved in the process, and that’s always the best way to establish the facts,” he told The Irish Times. “Robert Watt needs to clarify was he part of these disusssions and did he sign off on it, and if he did, it would be better for someone else to do the examination.”

In a statement on Thursday, the department said that “all arrangements in relation to staffing are the responsiblity of the Secretary General”.

Committee

Earlier on Fridauy, the chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform John McGuinness said that Mr Watt and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath will be asked before the committee to answer questions on the secondment of Dr Holohan.

Mr McGuinness spoke of his “serious concerns” about how the secondment of Dr Holohan to Trinity College Dublin was handled by Mr Watt.

"It is quite a mess within the department. It shows a certain dysfunction within the department and we need to clarify it," Mr McGuinness told RTÉ Radio's Morning Ireland programme.

“I have serious concerns about how the department reached the decision in relation to all of this and also the fact that the Minister (for Health) was not informed. Minister McGrath was not informed.

“There is still a lot of questions as to how this position was created was funded. Why there was so much secrecy around it. Why the department refused to answer questions from the very beginning.”

Mr McGuinness said that every secretary general has a responsibility to appear before Oireachtas committees.

“Mr Watt will be asked after the Easter recess but during the recess we will be making arrangements for that to happen. And Minister McGrath will also be asked before the committee. And indeed if the Minister of Health had a role in this well we will need to know what that is too.

“But this cannot continue in terms of the management of any department. The Minister must be informed and there are certain guidelines and so on that need to be followed relative to appointments like this.”

Earlier this week Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly described Dr Holohan's new role as a "really positive move", which he fully supports.