Department of Health Secretary General Robert Watt signed off on the controversial secondment of Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Tony Holohan to a new job at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).
Dr Holohan confirmed Mr Watt’s role as he also told a private meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Health that he himself had an involvement in developing the academic post.
Meanwhile, The Irish Times has learned it was the Department of Health that first approached TCD over a potential role for Dr Holohan at the university in recent months.
There is considerable anger within Government over how the appointment was handled, with much of it directed at Mr Watt.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly – who was not aware of the secondment arrangement until this week – has asked Mr Watt for a report on the matter.
In the Dáil, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said it would have been “far preferable” if the full details of Dr Holohan’s secondment had been put into the public domain at the outset.
He also said Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath was “not satisfied with how this has been done” and was engaging with the Department of Health.
Dr Holohan was announced as the professor of public health strategy and leadership at Trinity on March 25th, but it later emerged the Department of Health would fund the role, continuing to pay Dr Holohan’s annual salary of €187,000.
Dr Holohan appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Health on Thursday.
He confirmed he does not intend to return to the role of CMO at any point in the future after taking up a new position at TCD.
In the opening statement he sent to the committee, Dr Holohan defended the new position saying the third-level sector would play a vital role in meeting the challenge of future pandemics.
Sources told the Irish Times Dr Holohan told the meeting that his own “fingerprints” were on the development of the role at TCD.
His comments came after Sinn Féin spokesman on health David Cullinane had asked him how the role had come about and who signed off on it.
Dr Holohan is said to have outlined how he envisaged the role as part of a broader effort to develop the capacity the health service and learn from the lessons of the pandemic.
He confirmed that the secretary general of the Department of Health signed off on the secondment, though sources said he did not mention Mr Watt by name.
The Department later told The Irish Times that the secondment means Dr Holohan has agreed to relinquish his role as CMO and it is not his intention to return to this role at any point in the future.
It added: “The Department, at a senior level made this decision in order to show innovation and lead by example. All arrangements in relation to staffing are the responsibility of the Secretary General.”
While the Department of Health is understood to have first approached the university about a potential appointment, senior university figures are understood to have been keen to secure his expertise.
The university said the processes that facilitated the appointment were “neither unique nor unusual”.
“It is feature of academia, in Ireland and globally, that some professorships are paid for by external funding bodies, others are paid for by private enterprise or philanthropic donations,” the university said.
“This appointment followed our regular procedures. The university is completely satisfied that the professorship will deliver timely and relevant teaching and research opportunities and that Dr Holohan is ideally placed to make a significant contribution.”
Prof Holohan’s salary will be in excess of regular pay scales for academic professors at the university, where salaries range from just over €118,000 to almost €158,000.
However, it is below that of top earners in higher education where top academics in key areas of research have been hired on salaries of up to €337,000.