Friday, April 8
Business as usual. A series of unexplained hepatitis cases among children is on the radar of the Department of Health.
Dr Tony Holohan was in a briefing in a fourth-floor meeting room of the Miesian Plaza, the department’s shiny new headquarters, with his deputy Ronan Glynn, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and various officials.
A small number of cases of serious hepatitis in young children is under investigation here and the health service is trying to stay ahead of it.
In the UK, where the alert had emerged with a spike of 74 cases, some children have suffered acute and rapid liver failure, with a small number even needing a liver transplant.
It’s the sort of public health issue that was run-of-the-mill before the pandemic – and before Dr Holohan became the best-known medic in the country.
The elephant in the room, though, was Dr Holohan’s own future hanging in the balance.
The chief medical officer’s planned move to Trinity College Dublin was still due to go ahead on July 1. But that morning, the Taoiseach put the kibosh on it by saying the secondment needed to be “paused” pending a report by Department of Health secretary-general Robert Watt.
Only 72 hours earlier, the Irish Independent front page disclosed that Dr Holohan would continue to be paid his €187,000 Department of Health salary even when he stepped down to move to Trinity.
The revelation sparked a series of uncomfortable questions about the secondment.
Dr Holohan became the latest figure to be sacrificed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, joining an elite group along with cabinet ministers and a European commissioner. Nobody seems safe when the political heat comes on the Taoiseach.
By the following afternoon, at exactly 3.03pm on Saturday, on foot of the Taoiseach’s pause, Dr Holohan took the strategic leadership decision to pull the plug on his role as Professor of Public Health Leadership and Strategy.
“I do not wish to see the controversy of the last few days continuing,” he said.
“In particular, I wish to avoid any further unnecessary distraction that this has caused to our senior politicians and civil servants.”
The fallout remains, with many wondering how what appeared to be a good idea turned into an unmitigated shambles.
The Taoiseach had led the charge to wish Dr Holohan well in his appointment, thanking him “for your outstanding service to the Irish people, during the pandemic, and over 21 years in the CMO office”.
Over in Brussels at an EU summit, Mr Martin was effusive, pointing out that he had worked with Dr Holohan as Minister for Health. “Your dedication and steadfast advice was crucial to Ireland’s response and saved lives,” he said.
At a time of international crisis with a pandemic, and domestic uncertainty with a caretaker government, Dr Holohan had become a national figure – a hero in the eyes of many.
He then went through the pain of the loss of his wife, Dr Emer Feely, who died after a long illness. Dr Holohan had taken time out to help with her care.
Despite the association with lockdowns, his stock with the public was high as he transcended politics. But that hid the tensions within the political and health systems.
“He seemed to believe at times that he was running the entire show – the Government, the Department of Health, the HSE,” a senior source observed.
“To be fair, he is capable. It would be far worse if you were dealing with a gob****e. He isn’t – he’s competent and seems to be motivated by doing the right thing.
“But there was a difficulty in knowing his boundaries and managing relationships with those he had to work with.
“The tone-deafness about his role and a touch of arrogance didn’t serve him well. It led to a sense of entitlement.”
After those two years at the heart of crisis and with state inquiries to follow into the handling of the response, Dr Holohan prepared his exit.
“It’s not his first rodeo. He’s been down this road before with the weekly s***e of committees. And he’d be conscious about legacy,” a source said.
Rather than going back to the day job and publishing an annual report on the public health of the nation – that contains worthy recommendations on reducing smoking but quickly gathers dust – he teed up his move into academia.
The government side was happy to oblige – too happy. Then it all unravelled.
Like many senior figures in the public sector, Dr Holohan wanted to bring his terms and conditions with him as he went out the door, taking his salary and pension.
The lack of transparency and procedure around the funding aspects caught everyone out.
The Watt report made for cringeworthy reading for all concerned. Dr Holohan had been in talks since last August with Mr Watt and Secretary-General to the Government Martin Fraser “regarding his future work plans”.
What transpired was the Trinity role, with the Government guaranteeing €2m to the college in research funding to pay for Dr Holohan’s new professorship along with the research to be undertaken.
Now there’s a sense it all got out of control and both the arrangements and the recriminations went too far.
“Ultimately, what were David Cullinane and Róisín Shortall outraged about? The role, the salary, the governance? The secondment and the financing should have been mentioned from the start,” a health source said. “That was a mistake. But it would be an awful pity if he heads off now. His DNA is public service. Maybe this has to die down.”
But within the Government it’s clear another inquiry is now needed.
“It was best for all concerned that an independent assessment is done. It prevents the howls when the Dáil is back,” another source said.
Dr Holohan had sufficient political capital to secure his intended legacy project, but all bets were off once the scrutiny came.