Dr Tony Holohan’s €187K-a year-civil service funded Trinity College secondment will last ‘indefinite duration’ – he won’t return as chief medical officer

Holohan stepping away from his current job for an academic post this summerChief medical officer going to Trinity on an open ended secondment and the college isn’t footing the billMinister Michael McGrath called the appointment ‘unusual’ and says he’s sure an explanation will be provided

Dr Tony Holohan is to leave his post as chief medical officer and take up a role at Trinity College Dublin in July

Eilish O’Regan, Paul Hyland, Senan Molony, Hugh O’Connell and Laura Lynott

Tony Holohan will not be returning as chief medical officer to the Department of Health and his new academic contract with Trinity College is of “indefinite duration”, Department of Health secretary general Robert Watt confirmed today.

He was quizzed at the Oireachtas Health Committee about the controversy over the Department of Health’s decision to continue to pay Dr Holohan’s salary of over €187,000 salary although he will be working as a professor in Trinity College.

Asked by Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway about the decision Mr Watt said Dr Holohan will take on a new role in Trinity and a new permanent chief medical officer would be appointed in his place in the coming months.

Senator Conway said it could mean the Department of Health was funding Dr Holohan’s Trinity post for the “ next 20 years.”

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said he believed the appointment of Dr Holohan to the new role of Prof of Public Health Strategy and Leadership in Trinity would be beneficial.

But he said if he continues to be paid by the Deparment of Health it could be problematic because secondment means a person can return to their post and this is for indefinite duration.

Chair of the committee, Colm Burke, said they were informed by Dr Holohan today that he was unaware the committee had invited him to explain the rationale behind current public health advice.

He said Dr Holohan said he would make himself available tomorrow. It is unclear if the committee will convene a public committee hearing.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris on Wednesday afternoon said that it is up to the Department of Health and Trinity College to give “clarity and information” in relation to Dr Holohan’s new job in TCD.

“Who pays in a secondment is obviously a matter for the two organisations involved, the Department of Health and Trinity College Dublin and it’s up to them to provide the clarity and information in relation to that,” he said.

Minister Harris, a former health minister, denied that it was a “jobs for the boys” situation as nobody doubts Dr Holohan’s qualifications.

“My understanding is that there was a very robust panel put in place, I don’t think anybody doubts the huge qualifications and background of Tony Holohan,” he told Independent.ie.

“I think there’s two things - the idea, which I think is a good thing and then the execution of the idea, I think even from hearing the Opposition’s comments largely, people are looking for information, I don’t think people are doubting the merits of the idea,” he said.

Today Health Minster Stephen Donnelly  said he did not sign-off on Dr Tony Holohan’s secondment to a Trinity College Dublin post.

The minister said he was made aware of the move two weeks ago.

Mr Donnelly said he “fully supports” the appointment and argued the arrangement was not uncommon in the healthcare sector.

“There are plenty of people in the Department of Health who have been seconded in from parts of the public sector and indeed there are Department of Health officials who are currently working in other parts of the public sector.

"So, that’s quite normal,” he said speaking on RTE Radio One.

“We have consultants that the HSE funds in universities all the time. There’s a very, very close collaboration between healthcare and academia for all the obvious reasons.

“Tony’s going to be involved now in educating future public health leaders. We have consultants in many hospitals around the country who have academic posts, who are involved in research, who are involved in training clinicians.”

Mr Donnelly described the CMO’s appointment to the major research position in Trinity as a “positive move” and said, “it’s all public money”.

“Regardless of whether the department paid it, or Trinity paid it or they paid some each [his salary], it’s all public money,” he said.

“But remember Dr Holohan could, if he wanted, stay in his role of Chief Medical Officer, stay within the Department of Health for many years to come and obviously the department would pay.

“The Department of Health and the country is really going to benefit greatly out of this.”

In the Seanad, Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer asked why Trinity College is not paying the salary of the newly created position for Dr Holohan.

Mr Buttimer said Mr Donnelly added to the confusion and “muddied the waters” about the appointment during his interview on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland.

The senator said he accepted the minister’s comments that Mr Holohan’s appointment would allow Ireland prepare for future pandemic.

However, he added: “There’s something not right when this situation is allowed to happen and the three pertinent ministers, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Minister of Public Expenditure had nothing to say or do in regarding the appointment or the sending off of the role.

“It is unusual that a person being seconded is being paid by the State and then we, as a State, are hiring a chief medical officer and my question at this point and it's very important is the position for two years, one year five year and is the new chief medical officer going to be for one year.”

It emerged Dr  Holohan is still guaranteed his gold-plated pension when he retires, despite stepping away from his current job for an academic post this summer under a deal worked out for all civil servants last year.

Initially it was revealed that Dr Holohan will hold on to his salary of over €187,000 when he becomes a Trinity College professor in July.

Now it has emerged that from last year anyone on secondment in the civil service can hold on to pension benefits based on their grade.

A press release from the Department of Health announcing his Trinity appointment last month did not say he would remain on his current salary, which is paid through the civil service.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath has labelled the Dr Holohan appointment to Trinity College on secondment as “unusual.”

Minister McGrath told The Tonight Show on Virgin Media One last night that he “certainly wasn’t involved in this decision” but that there is a “circular and policy in place in respect of secondments”.

The “normal circumstances” when a public servant is seconded is for the organisation they go to to pay for their salary, Minister McGrath explained.

However, the fact that the chief medical officer is going to Trinity on an open ended secondment and the college was not footing the bill, was he admitted not the norm.

“It is unusual in that sense,” Minister McGrath said. “The default should be the body the person is seconded to would pay… but it’s open to the line department to enter into specific arrangements if they believe that’s appropriate.

“I am sure they’ll provide an explanation for the context in the period ahead.”

Minister McGrath explained he did not “have all the facts to hand.”

However, the minister said it was “normally the case where the body where the person is being seconded would pick up the cost of the salary.”

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform disclosed the new policy on secondment yesterday after it was confirmed Dr Holohan will keep his salary when he becomes professor of public health strategy and leadership in Trinity from the next academic year.

The policy says pension benefits for seconded staff “will be based on the grade the individual is employed in their parent organisation”.

The Department of Health did not respond to a query on what grade Dr Holohan was on, after Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall questioned how both he and his successor could be on the same salary. She said it was a “very odd situation”.

A department spokeswoman confirmed Dr Holohan’s secondment is “open-ended” and said it is “a regular feature across civil and public service to encourage sharing of knowledge and skills in the public interest”.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure could not say how many civil servants are on secondment, adding it is at the discretion of the department where the person is working.

The Department of Health declined to say if any representations had been made to Trinity by Dr Holohan or others. A spokeswoman said the position was created by Trinity with Dr Holohan in mind in light of ongoing global issues, such as the recent pandemic.

Dr Holohan was interviewed by a panel, and his job as chief medical officer will be filled through open competition under the Public Appointments Service and the Top-Level Appointments ­Committee.

Earlier yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was not involved, in one way or the other, with the Trinity appointment.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said it was evidence of a “cosy cartel, or a two-tier or three-tier society – where people have to try and survive, and yet you can do this for Dr Holohan, your friend from way back”.

Separately, Dr Holohan has told the Oireachtas Health Committee that he will not be able to appear before it until after the Easter recess.

David Cullinane of Sinn Féin, which sought Dr Holohan’s appearance last week, said it was “quite bizarre” that he would not be available until the end of April to outline the rationale for the current public health advice.

The Dáil will go into recess at the end of this week and not return until April 25.