Wednesday 16 October 2019

Security fear as white powder is sent to Health Minister Harris

Offices evacuated and staff are placed in quarantine after baking powder hoax

Scare: Specialists in hazardous material gear at the scene of the incident at the Department of Health. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Scare: Specialists in hazardous material gear at the scene of the incident at the Department of Health. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Laura Larkin, Ken Foy and Robin Schiller

Senior staff in the Department of Health were quarantined for several hours after an envelope containing white powder was sent to Health Minister Simon Harris.

The minister and the entire department had to leave as offices were evacuated after the alarm was raised shortly before noon, when a staff member in the minister's private office opened the envelope.

The substance - initially feared to be a harmful substance, which prompted the evacuation - was later found to be baking powder after an expert examination.

No note or threat was attached to the package and a full Garda investigation into the incident has started.

A source close to the minister last night said his immediate concern following receipt of the envelope was for staff - including a new member of the team - who were directly affected by the worrying incident.

"He was upset for the people involved," the source said.

Around a dozen senior staff in the minister's private office were quarantined until specialists had declared the substance benign.

The minister did not come into contact with the powder and had to leave along with the rest of the staff in Miesian Plaza on Baggot Street, which is also home to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

In a brief statement on Twitter last night, Mr Harris thanked emergency services for their response to the incident.

"Thank you to the emergency services for their diligence today in responding to an incident at my department," he said.

"The safety of staff must always be paramount. Today was a difficult day for them all and particularly those who work so closely with me in my office."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last night said he did not know what type of "oddballs" would send suspicious packages to politicians but pointed out that post would never be opened by a public representative but rather by their staff.

He said: "If you want to come after us, come after us but don't come after our staff or our families."

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone, who was also among those who had to lead the building, also expressed concern for staff who are the ones who open post.

"I did see Minister Harris as well afterwards, we were both over in Leinster House continuing our meetings having evacuated, and I just said to him 'Simon, you know I'm so sorry this has happened to you'," she said.

"It's just completely unacceptable. This is after a number of other targets in relation to, in my view, the leadership and efforts that he is offering in terms of his ministry and it is very, very worrying from that perspective too."

The Independent minister went on to say: "It should not be happening, but above all I want to say is that really the people who are most unsafe in this regard are staff, and that's completely unacceptable."

Gardaí and members of the Army Bomb Disposal Team were dispatched to the scene when the alarm was raised and significant security was rolled out.

The area was cordoned off and specialist technicians equipped with 'HazMat' suits - or hazardous material gear -were deployed to examine the substance.

Staff were sent home in the wake of the incident but the scene was declared safe at 2.30pm.

The sending of the suspicious package is the latest in a series of incidents which have led to a review of ministerial security arrangements.

A number of weeks ago, Mr Harris was targeted by protesters at his Wicklow home. Mr Harris believes the group followed his wife and baby home from a walk on a Sunday afternoon.

Richard Bruton has also been targeted by the group, while protesters have also gathered near the home of the Taoiseach in recent weeks.

Ahead of those protests, gardaí were also investigating a threat to "evict" female ministers from their homes.

Irish Independent

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