Thursday 15 November 2018

Health Minister refuses to express confidence in HSE boss Tony O'Brien

Independent.ie understands three ministers, Katherine Zappone, Michael Ring and Finian McGrath, questioned the merits of standing by Mr O’Brien at today’s Cabinet meeting

Minister Simon Harris.
Minister Simon Harris.

Kevin Doyle, Group Political Editor

HEALTH Minister Simon Harris has declined three opportunities to express confidence in HSE Director General Tony O’Brien.

As he revealed details of an independent scoping inquiry into the CervicalCheck scandal, the minister insisted the embattled health chief should remain in position until the end of June.

But he repeatedly refused to express confidence in Mr O’Brien.

Independent.ie understands three ministers, Katherine Zappone, Michael Ring and Finian McGrath, questioned the merits of standing by Mr O’Brien at today’s Cabinet meeting.

And when questioned by the media this afternoon, Mr Harris repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer.

He said there will be a new interim director of the HSE in place by the start of July.

“I haven’t done any such thing in terms of expressing or not expressing [confidence],” he said.

“What I’ve stated is a fact that in about eight or nine weeks time there will be a new person holding the office of Director General of the HSE.

“I’ve heard from people like the Irish Cancer Society, who have publicly said in your presence that they believe there is benefit in him remaining in post to help for those weeks. I know that the overriding determination and effort of all my colleagues in Cabinet is getting answers.”

Pressed again, Mr Harris replied: “I’ve made my position very clear in relation Tony O’Brien. He has eight or so weeks left to serve in his post.

“I expect him to do everything he can to assist in that time. I’ve been consistent in my view.”

Asked a third time if he has confidence in Mr O’Brien as DG of the HSE, he responded: “I’ve said what I’ve said and it’s a very factual statement.”

Aside from debating Mr O’Brien’s future, the Cabinet did sign off on the terms of reference for an inquiry into why some women were not told that opportunities to spot the early stages of their cancer were missed.

It will be headed by Dr Gabriel Scally, a UK professor of public health.

The role played by management at CervicalCheck, the HSE and the Department of Health will come under scrutiny.

Vicky Phelan’s, whose case brought the scandal to national attention, is to be contacted by Dr Scally today.

The scope of the inquiry will be wider than previously believed with Mr Harris now also seeking answers around the tendering process that saw US laboratories win contracts from CervicalCheck.

On Saturday, the Irish Independent revealed how tender documents suggest the contract to carry out all smear tests on behalf of the State was awarded in 2012 based on the cheapest price available.

A notification published after a procurement process says that Quest Diagnostics and MedLab Pathology were awarded the contract based on the “lowest price”, with no details of the other criteria involved.

MedLab Pathology is a sister company of Clinical Pathology Laboratories Ltd (CPL), the company that settled a lawsuit with Ms Phelan for €2.5m.

It is intended the inquiry will report back before the end of June.

Mr Harris said he has also begun work on legislating for mandatory disclosure in a bit to show that the Government response is more than “platitudes”.

He told reporters he is “furious” at the way the scandal has developed and hopes the inquiry will bring quick answers.

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