Sunday 26 May 2019

HSE chief faces backlash for taking four-week holiday before he leaves

HSE Director General Tony O’Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers
HSE Director General Tony O’Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers

Kevin Doyle, Group Political Editor

A PLAN by Tony O’Brien to take four weeks’ holidays before formally stepping down as HSE chief has served only to intensify calls for his resignation.

Fianna Fáil believes Mr O’Brien’s position has now become a “distraction”, while Sinn Féin is intent on tabling a Dáil motion of no confidence this week.

Director general Mr O’Brien indicated to the Government over the weekend that he was willing to take annual leave from the end of June, a month ahead of his scheduled retirement.

It was hoped the move would lift the political pressure on him and the Government – but Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly told the Irish Independent his party stands by a call for Mr O’Brien to resign.

Mr Donnelly said the “inadequate response” to the concerns raised by women over recent days meant Mr O’Brien tenure should end.

“It’s a distraction. He needs to not be the story. The story needs to be around getting to the truth and getting support for women,” Mr Donnelly said.

He added that the director general should step down “without prejudice” so that the inquiry team can do its work.

The Irish Independent understands Mr O’Brien spent yesterday working at the CervicalCheck offices in Co Limerick.

Government sources said he had a number of weeks’ annual leave to take before his retirement and that both sides felt late June would give enough time for him to oversee the initial response to the scandal.

“If we were talking about a man with many months or years to serve, it would be different. We’re talking about eight weeks.

“Is it better to have the DG spending significant amount of time in CervicalCheck office and reporting to the minister or to create a vacuum?”

The source added: “It’s a marginal call. Nobody is holding a candle for Tony O’Brien.” 

The Cabinet is expected to discuss Mr O’Brien’s position tomorrow, when Health Minister Simon Harris brings a memo on his planned response to the crisis.

He will brief ministers on the terms of reference for a scoping inquiry that will be headed by one or two international experts.

They will be tasked with answering initial questions on why women diagnosed with cervical cancer were not told that early signs were missed in previous smear tests.

The experts will also be told to compile a list of questions that will require further probing, possibly through a commission of investigation.

The woman whose court case unearthed the scandal, Vicky Phelan, will be a direct participant in the inquiry.

It is understood other women affected will be invited to make written submissions.

Mr Harris will also ask for Cabinet approval to publish patient safety legislation, including new laws around mandatory reporting.

He also plans to fast-track the establishment of a HSE board.

The Ceann Comhairle’s office will also decide tomorrow whether to allow a Sinn Féin motion calling for Mr O’Brien to resign or be sacked.

Mary Lou McDonald indicated last night that his early departure will not affect her party’s plans to try to force him from office.

“It is clear that the leadership of the HSE is unable to take responsibility for this scandal. The only way to begin to rebuild confidence in the screening programme, the HSE and department is for the director general of the HSE to step aside or failing that for the minister to act,” she said.

“Sinn Féin will be pushing for a vote in the Dáil on this matter as we strive to rebuild confidence in the screening programme.”

However, when asked whether Fianna Fáil would back such a motion, health spokesman Mr Donnelly said that some of Sinn Féin’s commentary on the crisis had been “grossly irresponsible”.

He said Fianna Fáil would be “very careful about anything Sinn Féin proposes on the issue”.

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