Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said it would have been “far preferable” if the full details of the outgoing chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan’s secondment to Trinity College had been put in the public domain at the outset.
Mr Varadkar said the 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 College 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.
The Irish Times reported on Thursday that Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was only made aware that Dr Holohan’s new position at TCD was a secondment from the Department of Health on Tuesday.
The Tánaiste was responding to questions from Independent TD Michael McNamara in the Dáil on Thursday, who said there was a “lack of transparency and openness in the use of taxpayer’s money” around the secondment.
In response, Mr Varadkar said the chief medical officer’s new role was an open-ended secondment funded by the Department of Health and Dr Holohan was being seconded under the same terms and conditions as his existing contract.
“Secondments between organisations are a regular and common feature across the civil and public service to encourage interdepartmental and inter agency co-operation and a sharing of knowledge and skills across the public service,” he said.
“But I do think, we all acknowledge, that it would have been far preferable if the full details around the secondment had been put in public domain at the outset and I think that should have been done.
“I know Minister McGrath, the Minister for Public Expenditure, is not satisfied with how this has been done and he’s engaging with the Department of Health at the moment.”
Mr Varadkar said he was not “in any way casting aspirations” on Dr Holohan who was “an excellent public servant, nor on the fact that Trinity is creating this post”, but said: “It is important to follow procedures and Minister McGrath is pursuing it.”
Dr Tony Holohan confirmed for the first time on Thursday he does not intend to return to the role of chief medical officer at any point in the future.
In an opening statement sent to the Oireachtas Committee on Health before it met on Thursday, Dr Holohan defended the new role saying the third-level sector would play a vital role in meeting the challenge of future pandemics.
He said: “My secondment to Trinity College Dublin means I have agreed to relinquish my role as chief medical officer; it is not my intention to return to this role at any point in the future. It is important that my successor feels fully empowered and enabled to undertake the role as they see fit.”
He also hinted that the new role would form part of the work of the Department of Health in the future. “Specifically, the Department intends me to lead the development and activities of inter-institutional collaboration between universities and the health sector and to develop stronger links with the WHO and agencies of the EU.”
Lack of competition
Mr McNamara said last year a special envoy position had been created especially for Katherine Zappone and there “may well have been merit in the position, she may well have been a suitably qualified candidate, indeed unparalleled, according to some”.
“But the issue was a lack of competition and transparency of the use of taxpayer’s money. You said it was a mistake,” Mr McNamara said to the Tánaiste.
“This year a professorship was created for Dr Tony Holohan. There may well be merit in the professorship, he may well be a suitably qualified candidate, indeed uniquely qualified, but there’s a similar lack of transparency and openness in the use of taxpayer’s money.
“The only differences that I can see between the two is that Dr Holohan’s new position, if it goes ahead, is going to cost the Exchequer 14 times more, and at least your colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs took ownership of the Katherine Zappone position.
“The Minister for Health seems to be a passenger about what’s happening in his department. Are you happy for this appointment to go ahead without any open competition funded by taxpayer’s money?”