Questions mount over cronyism in Ireland’s health system

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Top health officials in Ireland provided doses of Covid-19 vaccine to their own family members and friends ahead of frontline workers, care home residents and other vulnerable people, according to reports this week.

The master of the Coombe maternity hospital in Dublin admitted Covid-19 vaccines were provided to some 16 family members of staff.

Prof Michael O’Connell, the hospital’s manager, said he now regrets that two of his children were among those vaccinated.

Each vial of vaccine contains a guaranteed number of doses, but the additional dosage is being described by Irish health officials as “left over” and “spare”.

It is thought several hundreds of such vaccine jabs have now been redirected for the benefit of insiders, although there is no evidence that anyone sought to profit financially.

O’Connell defended his handling of the matter. “Had they not been used, they would have been discarded,” he declared.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said the optics of what happened in the Coombe hospital were not good. He said his party had heard from other hospitals about non-frontline staff receiving vaccinations ahead of other workers.

“We have got a lot of anecdotal evidence coming from staff in different hospitals in relation to non-patient facing staff getting vaccines ahead of frontline staff,” he said, adding that he had raised the issue with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the vaccine taskforce.

There are fears of even deeper corruption following complaints that announced distributions of vaccine to clinics have not materialised. This is being linked to an admission by a number of Fianna Fáil TDs, including Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, that they had ‘stroked’ vaccine supplies for certain lobby groups who had contacted them.

Questions of corruption within the health system also intensified as Fine Gael Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was accused of changing his story about leaking a highly confidential agreement on pay rates with doctors to a friend’s lobby group.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty questioned Mr Varadkar on disclosures under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act which showed that health officials did not in fact make the draft pay deal available to Mr Varadkar, as he had claimed, to forward to his friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail in April 2019.

Dr Ó Tuathail was then head of a GPs’ group set up to rival the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), which had negotiated the new agreement with the government.

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Doherty said the correspondence shows that even former health minister Simon Harris, who was responsible for the negotiations, was unable to obtain the document due to its sensitivity. He said the Office of the Taoiseach was used by Varadkar to “pull a stroke for a friend”.

“This wasn’t part of a Government strategy...this was a stroke plain and simple,” he added.

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said that the leak had been an “act of corruption and abuse of his office”.

He said that the details of the emails published in recent days “rebut the defence mustered by Varadkar, and show his answers in the Dáil were dishonest and disingenuous”.

Rise TD Paul Murphy said that the new revelations confirmed that Mr Varadkar had broken the ministerial code of conduct “because it undermines his excuse that the details of the leaked agreement were already public”.

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