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Health Minister says Beacon Hospital will continue vaccinations despite private school controversy

Leftover vaccines were given to staff from St Gerard’s Catholic school in Bray this week.

Image: Sasko Lazarov

Updated Mar 26th 2021, 8:22 PM

THE MINISTER FOR Health has said the Beacon Hospital will be allowed to continue vaccinating citizens after it was criticised for giving jabs to teachers at a private school in Co Wicklow this week.

Stephen Donnelly suggested that vulnerable patients should have been vaccinated by the hospital instead, after it claimed that “leftover vaccines” were given to 20 teachers and staff from St Gerard’s Catholic school in Bray.

There have been calls for the hospital’s CEO, Michael Cullen, to resign following the controversy, which was first reported by the Irish Daily Mail this morning.

Tweeting this afternoon, the Health Minister said no private school should have received vaccines from a private hospital.

“The protocols are crystal clear on having a backup list of people available from the priority cohorts,” Donnelly said.

“We are prioritising our most vulnerable right now, as it should be.”

Donnelly also told RTÉ’s Six One news that he had discussed the matter with HSE CEO Paul Reid and would appoint someone to oversee vaccination at the facility, but added that he would not instruct the Beacon Hospital to stop giving jabs to citizens.

“Ultimately, that would be counterproductive. We would end up punishing people who just want to get vaccinated for something that was completely unacceptable,” he said.

A HSE spokesperson confirmed that it had appointed a person to monitor vaccinations at the facility.

“The HSE has assigned a senior official to work with the Beacon Hospital on a daily basis to ensure that all appropriate HSE guidance and operational standards are maintained at the Covid Vaccination Centre,” a statement said.

The Irish Daily Mail reported that children of the CEO of the Beacon attend the fee-paying school.

The private hospital is currently being used as a hub to vaccinate frontline healthcare workers, with the newspaper reporting the spare doses in question had to be used at short notice.

In a statement today the Beacon said 1,096 HSE staff were vaccinated at the hospital on Tuesday, but that there were over 200 no-shows to scheduled appointments as a result of people being double booked at another vaccination centre the Aviva Stadium.

The hospital said it had liaised with the HSE, and that the majority of excess vaccines were subsequently used for HSE staff who were redirected to the hospital that afternoon.

“However, late on Tuesday evening there were still 20 leftover vaccines drawn up that needed to be used within a very short period of time,” a spokesperson said.

“As this was the AstraZeneca vaccine there were limitations to who this could be administered to.”

The hospital said that a decision was made to administer the leftover vaccines to teachers in St Gerard’s because they were in a position to get to the hospital within an “exceptionally short timeframe”.

CEO Michael Cullen also accepted that the decision was not in line with sequencing guidelines in place from the HSE, but added that it was made under time pressure.

“I sincerely apologise for the upset that this decision has caused and we are updating our approach to our back up list to ensure that this situation does not arise again,” he said in a statement. 

Labour leader Alan Kelly was among those to call for Cullen’s resignation over the controversy, saying his position “is now entirely untenable”.

“Giving vaccines to teachers in his children’s school ahead of vulnerable patients in the hospital is simply unjustifiable,” he said this afternoon.

“It’s beyond belief that the CEO thought this type of behaviour would be appropriate or acceptable and there is now a fundamental question over his judgement.”

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall described the reports as “completely unacceptable”, saying that it undermined confidence in the country’s entire vaccination rollout.

She called on Donnelly to look into why HSE staff were double-booked at the Aviva Stadium to ensure a similar error does not happen in future.

Also today, HSE CEO Paul Reid said he was “extremely annoyed and frustrated” by the news, saying there were clear guidelines about how spare vaccines should be administered. 

“From my perspective, from the HSE’s perspective, there can be no ambiguity around how you arrange vaccination clinics,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

“We really do expect all services to comply with this. We understand totally as vials are opened there’s a period of time of a few hours, where the seal is broken, that they must be utilised, but it should be planned.”

‘Absolutely livid’

Vulnerable patients have also criticised the Beacon in the wake of the controversy.

James McGill, who is in recovery from brain cancer, said he was frustrated and angry to hear about the situation with these leftover doses in the Beacon. 

“I don’t want to see any vaccine go to waste,” he told The Journal.

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“I have no issue with teachers being vaccinated, but I was frustrated and angry at the fact that after 30,000 cancelled vaccines last week, myself included, that they couldn’t find 20 people within the county and closer to the Beacon than Gerard’s [school in Bray].”

His appointment to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was cancelled last week due to the temporary pause in the use of that vaccine.

The appointment has not yet been rescheduled, and he said he has spoken to several other cancer patients who are still waiting for rescheduled vaccine appointments. 

Aoife Stokes, whose mother is currently receiving treatment for cancer and is a patient of the Beacon Hospital, told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne that she lives 10 to 15 minutes away from the hospital and could have been there if they were told about leftover doses.

“It’s very difficult to understand how a hospital serving and looking after patients like my mother does not include them on a standby list when they’re an active category.”

Stokes said her mother has been told she is in Cohort 4, patients who are at very high risk of severe Covid-19, and she has been told that the AstraZeneca vaccine is suitable for her. 

“There’s no way for us to find out at any point when she is due to receive this vaccine and there’s the constant worry of knowing you have somebody there living with this risk and being at increased risk of side effects if they were to contract Covid-19,” she said.

She said her mother is “absolutely livid” to hear that patients like her were not seen as a higher priority than staff at a school who are not in an at-risk group.

- With reporting by Michelle Hennessy, Orla Dwyer and Stephen McDermott.

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