Thursday 22 August 2019

Varadkar forced to apologise over mortuary controversy

Climbdown: Taoiseach admits “I got it wrong”. Picture: Damien Eagers
Climbdown: Taoiseach admits “I got it wrong”. Picture: Damien Eagers

Philip Ryan and Alan O'Keeffe

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been forced into an embarrassing apology following public outrage over comments he made about conditions in a hospital mortuary.

Mr Varadkar's climbdown came after his local and European election candidates faced a backlash on the doorsteps this weekend over his suggestion that there was no evidence to support claims by four medical consultants about conditions in Waterford University Hospital's mortuary. In a statement yesterday, Mr Varadkar said he wanted to "apologise unreservedly" to anyone who felt he did "not treat this issue with the seriousness or sensitivity it deserved". He also admitted: "This one I got wrong."

"As I have said before, my overriding 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," he added.

The Taoiseach's comments followed revelations that four consultants wrote to the hospital last October warning that inadequate conditions resulted in some bodies being left on trolleys in corridors and, without proper temperature controls, they were leaking fluids and beginning to decompose.

Fine Gael sources said yesterday that local and European election candidates were being "slated for his position" on the doorsteps.

"It could be seen as an attack on whistleblowers so he had to climb down," a source said.

Another Fine Gael source said the controversy was Mr Varadkar's "whingers moment" in reference to former Taoiseach Enda Kenny calling people in his constituency whingers during the 2016 general election campaign.

Sources close to the Taoiseach yesterday maintained that candidates had told him his comments about the mortuary were not coming up on the doorstep. However, the Sunday Independent unstands there has been a strong backlash.

During a visit to Waterford last week, Mr Varadkar publicly said there was "no evidence" of the problems reported at the mortuary by the consultants.

He said local coroners and undertakers had not complained about the condition of corpses coming from 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 "strange story".

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 also 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.

Since then, two families have made official complaints arising from the controversy.

Mr Varadkar's apology came after a difficult week for the Taoiseach as he campaigned in an election for the first time as leader of Fine Gael. However, senior party sources said they were more concerned about the backlash they received from beef farmers than the row over the hospital mortuary. Mr Varadkar faced an IFA protest last Tuesday in Cork.

Last week, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association said 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 service.

Sunday Independent

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