The “priority attention: advance warning notifications” email — including the maternal deaths figures revealed today — was sent by the HSE South’s regional director Pat Healy to the Department of Health’s secretary general Dr Ambrose McLoughlin on Dec 6.
HSE national director Laverne McGuinness and both groups’ most senior press officers were also included. On Dec 13, the email, intended to be forwarded to South-East officials, was also accidentally copied to the Irish Examiner.
When the HSE South realised the error, it attempted to retrieve the email. It subsequently provided some details on the issues raised, including information that had been requested weeks earlier, without success.
Among the 14 topics raised in the Dec 6 email was a warning of the “significant press coverage” Kerrywoman Fiona Ní Chonchúbhair’s court case would attract. The High Court awarded Ms Ní Chonchúbhair €170,000 in damages recently after her baby’s death.
The incident occurred when the 36-year-old, from Countess Rd, Killarney, Co Kerry, was rushed from Kerry General Hospital on a 114km trip to Cork University Maternity Hospital.
She was taken by an ambulance which did not have the necessary equipment for a blood transfusion, despite the fact that Ms Ní Chonchúbhair was bleeding internally.
Mr Healy’s email, which was sent before the court case, read: “A settlement has been agreed but apparently our solicitors advise that this woman is adamant there will be a day in court. It is likely this will receive significant press coverage as this is a maternity issue.”
Other issues confirm that, in some cases, the HSE withholds information from journalists — including when these details are readily available to press officers.
One example is the ongoing Irish Examiner query into maternal deaths at Cork University Maternity Hospital this year. At the time of the email on Dec 13, the HSE South was continuing to claim this information was not yet available.
However, the email confirms this information had been available since Dec 6 — a fact known to the HSE South officials looking after the response.
Among other flagged items are details of a nursing home resident who has contracted hepatitis B at a Co Wexford facility, and a warning that the Sunday Times was about to publish a story on Noreen Finn, who died at CUH on Apr 23, 1997, after brain surgery.
The revelations of news management provoked anger in patient representative bodies.
“There should never be the perception that information is choreographed,” said Irish Patients’ Association chairman Stephen McMahon.
“It’s imperative patients and the public know what the situation is as soon as it’s known.
“If you take the maternity deaths tragedy, it is clear the information was known. There shouldn’t have been any problem in disclosing reality.”