Tuesday 24 September 2019

'This is one I got wrong' - Taoiseach apologises for comments on Waterford mortuary controversy

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: Frank McGrath

Alan O'Keeffe

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has apologised unreservedly for his comments on the Waterford mortuary controversy and admitted "This is one I got wrong."

When asked about reports about sub-standard mortuary conditions at University Hospital Waterford last week, he said there was "no evidence" to substantiate claims made by pathologists.

Four pathologists wrote to the hospital last October warning that inadequate conditions resulted in some bodies were being left on trolleys in corridors and, without proper temperature controls, were leaking fluids and beginning to decompose. 

Such incidents caused bereaved relatives to suffer distress, they warned.

The hospital management stated there was no evidence to substantiate the doctors’ claims and Mr Varadkar said in Waterford last Tuesday that it was "a strange story."

He said: "I don’t know if those claims are true or not, but it doesn’t seem that there’s any evidence to support them and certainly those who made them haven’t put forward any evidence to support them," he said.

In a statement today, Mr Varadkar said he had got it wrong. 

He said that corroborating statements have emerged which support the statements of the pathologists.

The Taoiseach's said: "Last week when I was asked about the Waterford mortuary, there were conflicting accounts.

"On the one hand, a letter from four consultants making deeply disturbing claims about conditions in the mortuary and on the other hand, a statement from hospital management saying there was no evidence or supporting complaints to back up the claims.

"I did not want to jump to conclusions or to side with one group or staff against another without knowing facts or before an investigation was carried out.

"That's why I said that I did not know if the claims were true or not.

"Over the course of the week, corroborating statements have come to light and complaints have been made that I believe support the views expressed by the four consultants. This is one I got wrong.

"I want to apologise unreservedly to anyone who feels that I did not treat this issue with the seriousness or sensitivity it deserved.

"As I have said before, my over-riding concern is for the dignity of patients in life and in death.

"It has never been in dispute that the mortuary is sub-standard and needs to be replaced. Planning permission has been granted for a new one and I am assured that it will go to tender and construction this year. In the interim, temporary measures are being put in place," he said.

During his visit to Waterford last week, it was reported that he declared there was "no evidence" of the problems reported at the mortuary.

When asked if the consultants were lying, he said then: "No, I didn’t say that. What I said was a statement of fact.

"There is a dispute about what the true facts are."

He said further investigation was needed to get to the bottom of the matter.

The October letter written by the pathologists was made public by the Waterford News and Star newspaper after a freedom of information request for its release was turned down.

A second letter to management written by the four pathologists six weeks ago has emerged. It complained of the "appalling lack of dignity afforded to deceased patients" and said "body storage on the floor of the mortuary" was needed during a recent surge in activity.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association stated it was "alarmed" by the Government response to the matters raised by the four pathologists.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin accused the Taoiseach of "Trumpian tactics" in dealing with issues he did not like.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said Mr Varadkar’s comments militated against a culture of openness in the health services.

The Taoiseach said on Friday he regretted the tone he used when speaking on the issue.

He said he has always encouraged people to be open and honest.

"If that is the tone that I struck, or it came across that way, I regret that.

"I have always encouraged people to raise issues if they have issues," he said.

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