Catherine Shanahan: Unflappable Tony Holohan’s bedside manner calms an uneasy nation

Catherine Shanahan: Unflappable Tony Holohan’s bedside manner calms an uneasy nation
19/03/2020 Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health during a media update on the confirmed case of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) in Ireland at the Department of Health, Miesian Plaza, Baggot Street, Dublin. Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dr Tony Holohan seemingly has few faults yet his self-belief may lead to his downfall, writes Catherine Shanahan

At midday last Wednesday, Tony Holohan was trending on Twitter.

The most recognisable civil servant in the country and the key public health expert leading the Government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis had taken ill.

Mid-press conference, while bringing journalists up to speed on the latest Covid-19 case figures, he put his hand to his chest, turned towards other members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and appeared to say: “I feel a bit funny”.

No-one was laughing, not then and not now. The last thing anyone wanted, from politicians to the general public, was to see the man fronting the fight to contain the pandemic laid low.

A nervous few hours passed as he attended for tests in a Dublin hospital. When the prognosis was good, you could imagine the NPHET members high-fiving, if only high-fiving was allowed.

By Thursday morning, less than 48 hours after “the scare”, Tony was back at his desk.

“‘Oh Tony’s back, thank God,’ said my wife just now” wrote one Twitter wag. It was one of the thousands of Tweets that caused Tony to trend, mainly wishing him well.

Tony is fast becoming a legend. Last weekend, he made it to the Roddy Doyle Two Pints sketch, aired on RTÉ Radio 1, where two middle-aged men chew the fat about life in general over a couple of pints.

“What about your man from the Department of Health?” asked one.

“Oh he’s top class,” came the response.

Tony, who they surmised was a “Bohs” supporter on account of ’the shape of his head’ was “always bang-on and calm and reassuring” and spoke “plain English” but best of all, he was “one of the lads”.

“What I really like about him is he’s ‘Tony’. None of your Dr Anthony Holohan,” they said.

In fact, William Gerard Anthony Holohan is an unlikely candidate for being “one of the lads” or, for that matter, one of the crowd.

Department of Health insiders say that he shone in the department from day one, when he became Deputy Chief Medical Officer in 2001, before being promoted to the role of CMO in 2008.

“There was a time when the role [of CMO] would have been considered a kind of retirement gig, but not with Tony,” a source said.

“He was smart and he wasn’t afraid to put himself forward or to have an opinion and he got the political bit too. Others might have stood back, or operated along the lines of “It’s for the Minister to decide”, but Tony understood that you had to have a view.

“Some of Tony’s predecessors would have run a mile from a mic or a camera, but he wasn’t phased. And he’s a very committed guy. . . He gets it that you are effectively the doctor to the nation. He ticked all of the boxes.”.

Tony’s promotion from deputy to chief CMO came during Mary Harney’s tenure as Minister for Health. She needed someone tenacious to help push through her ambitious plans to reform the delivery of cancer care.

“He was very, very strong on the cancer strategy and he knew the whole area really well. Himself and Tom Keane (who returned from Canada to oversee its implementation) would have been quite close. Tom Keane was also in favour of bringing in a medic, someone who could bring doctors into rooms and convince them about the strategy,” a source said.

Tony’s medical credentials are as follows: he graduated from University College Dublin in 1991 and trained initially in general practice, before specialising in public health medicine, graduating with a Masters in Public Health (MPH) in 1996.

The latter gave him the grounding he needed for his subsequent department role where he worked extensively on policy areas such as cancer control, patient safety, and primary care.

The public record says he holds a diploma in healthcare management from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland; he’s a member of the Irish College of General Practitioners (MICGP) and is a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Of his personal life, while born a Dub, he grew up in Limerick, attending Monaleen NS and Christian Brothers Secondary School, Sexton Street. He is married with two children and is passionate about GAA, tweeting regularly about his football club Templeogue Synge St and hurling club Faughs, also in Templeogue, Dublin.

He helps out with underage coaching and is committed to his own fitness in more recent times. He has been spotted leaving the department for home in the evenings in his running gear.

Those who would have socialised with him say he has “the whole medical student DNA and is up for good fun”.

“He’s very well grounded, a pleasant guy, very good company.

“He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable and extraordinarily well-read,” a source said. Former HSE chief Tony O’Brien, who is a personal friend of Tony’s, says he is “exactly as he appears on TV”.

“He is committed, he cares, he is very clear-thinking, not a person likely to panic. People like him who are public health doctors spend their whole lives planning for something like this,” Mr O’Brien said.

He recalls how on his very first day as CMO, Tony had to deal with the dioxin scare - the Irish pork crisis of 2008 when it emerged that unacceptable levels of dioxin had been used on farms supplying pigmeat.

“Tony found out at 5pm on a Friday evening that he had the job and the dioxin scare broke on Saturday and he was straight away fronting up the public health message.

“He is as well prepared experientially, professionally, and temperamentally as anyone in this role could be,” Mr O’Brien said.

So far so good. Except the nature of Tony’s job means the tables could turn at any time. There are those who believe he was lucky to survive the CervicalCheck crisis.

“There was a sense that Tony and the department secretary-general (Jim Breslin) would be thrown under the bus, that was the view in the department. The politics of it got so dangerous, and politicians will do what they need to do to survive.

“Relations with Harris [Simon, health minister) were pretty poor at the time, so it’s ironic that they are now back together doing a two-hander,” a source said.

It seems Tony, on a personal level, has few flaws, although one source cautioned that such is his self-belief, that he could ultimately fall on his own sword.

“He’s very much the medical student, very confident in his own views. I wouldn’t say arrogant, but he’d be able to square up to anyone.” Another said he would have concerns for Tony on a personal level, although not of the kind that have crystallised in the US where Anthony Fauci, his US counterpart, is the target of death threats.

The concern here relates to who will be scapegoated if all of this goes horribly wrong.

“When you hear politicians say they are “taking Tony Holohan’s advice”, if the situation turns, who will be blamed?,” one doctor asked.

“Anyone in the media spotlight has to be careful. If I were him I’d be emphasising how the team around me is helping me. At the moment, it’s all focused on him.”

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