Two Government ministers have failed to express confidence in Department of Health chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan after he admitted last week he knew about the damning HSE cervical cancer memos in 2016.
Education Minister Richard Bruton and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone declined to back Dr Holohan a number of times yesterday, saying they want to wait until the Government’s scoping review is complete before passing “judgment”.
Last Thursday, Dr Holohan confirmed to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee he was aware of the 2016 HSE memos which ultimately led to ex-HSE director general Tony O’Brien’s departure.
The memos have led to a public outcry and calls for more people to be removed from office due to the fact they called for letters to women to be “paused”.
They also referenced public relations strategies on how to respond to stories about how screening failed to identify cancer cases, and warned some women may go to the media to tell their story.
At the PAC meeting last week, Dr Holohan admitted he knew about the memos two years ago and did not pass them onto either then health minister and now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar or current Health Minister Simon Harris.
Asked if they still have confidence in Dr Holohan at a launch yesterday, Mr Bruton and Ms Zappone said they want to wait until the Government’s scoping exercise into the wider cervical cancer scandal ends next month before passing “judgment”.
Both ministers repeatedly declined to say Dr Holohan still has their support.
“I think we have to wait and see what evidence comes from the inquiry... The evidence is going to be scrutinised and then there will be questions about who is accountable. You don’t set up an inquiry and draw conclusions beforehand,” Mr Bruton said when asked if he has confidence in Dr Holohan.
Asked the same question, Ms Zappone said “I think we need to wait to hear the detail of what happened in terms of the information provided and how it was responded to”, adding: “So I am going to wait until that is determined before offering that judgment.”
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been forced to defend his personal response to the cervical cancer crisis, saying he wants to reassure the public the Government is getting “on top of this issue”.
Speaking to reporters at a separate event yesterday morning, Mr Varadkar admitted the issue caught the Government off guard as it was “not one we were able to prepare for because we didn’t know about it in advance”.
He described the “drip-drip” information release from the HSE as “not a desirable situation to be in”, but stressed all ministers want to “get the facts and the only way we can do that is through the Scally inquiry”.
At a pro-choice abortion referendum campaign event, Health Minister Simon Harris said he has found the cervical cancer scandal “very troubling”, but defended the Government’s response saying “I don’t think it’s fair to say it took two weeks to act”.
Mr Harris said what has happened to at least 209 women across the country is “horrific” but insisted the Government has listened to the opposition on the issue and will take all steps to find out who is responsible.
The cervical cancer controversy is expected to dominate cabinet again this morning with Mr Harris due to bring forward plans to restore the HSE board and add in new accountability levels in the organisation.
It is also expected to be raised in the Dáil and during a private meeting of the public accounts committee, which is due to meet with key officials on the matter on Thursday.
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