Saturday 21 September 2019

HSE Director General Tony O'Brien to take 'leave of absence' from board of US medical firm

Tony O’Brien, director general of the HSEPhoto: Tom Burke
Tony O’Brien, director general of the HSEPhoto: Tom Burke

John Downing and Kevin Doyle

HSE Director General Tony O’Brien is to take a “leave of absence” from the board of a US medical firm to focus on dealing with the Cervical cancer scandal - Tánaiste Simon Coveney has told the Dáil.

The Government has come under fire for giving permission to Mr O’Brien to take up the role on the board of Evofem Biosciences based in San Diego while he continues to be at the helm of the Health Services Executive.

The Opposition has claimed there is a danger of conflict of interest and also argued that the HSE job is responsibility enough for one person. 

Some Opposition politicians have called for Mr O’Brien to be removed as head of the HSE because of the cancer smear test debacle.

The controversy has been compounded by the revelation that the chairman of the US firm, Thomas Lynch, hosted a fundraising event for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Mr Lynch is also chairman of the Mater Hospital in Dublin and is well-known in business circles.

The Taoiseach had defended allowing Mr O’Brien to take up the US board seat for three reasons. He said Mr O’Brien will stand down as HSE head in just 12 weeks; there is no danger of conflict because the US firm does not operate in Ireland; and Mr O’Brien would undertake his US board duties in his own time.

But today the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, said Mr O’Brien had decided to temporarily stand aside from his US board role.  He said it was appropriate that Mr O’Brien could now focus fully on helping inquiries into the cervical testing problems.

But Sinn Féin deputy leader, Pearse Doherty, said the temporary leave of absence changed nothing and Mr O’Brien should be immediately sacked.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris has defended the decision to allow Mr O’Brien remain as head of the HSE.

Speaking in the Seanad this afternoon, the minister confirmed he had talks with the Director General this morning about his work as a non-executive director of EvoFem.

Mr O’Brien said he would take “a leave of absence” until July “at which point I will appoint an interim Director General until a recruitment process is complete”.

“I want to recognise that he has resolved to devote the short time he has left to serve as DG in working to deal with the CervicalCheck issue, and I appreciate that he began his HSE career in the screening services and wishes to end it by working to restore confidence in them,” Mr Harris said.

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