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Oireachtas committee chair defends length of sitting after public health concerns

Former HSE chief Tony O’Brien questioned the length of the sitting.

Image: Shutterstock/Robert Keane

THE CHAIR OF the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 has defended the length of committee sittings after facing criticism that it was a public health risk. 

The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is set to meet tomorrow and sit all day from 11am until the evening in order to quiz a range of health officials, including Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and HSE CEO Paul Reid. 

The Secretary General of the Department of Health, Jim Breslin, will also appear before the committee. 

The committee will have three sessions of two hours each. Writing in the Sunday Business Post, former HSE chief Tony O’Brien said: “Given that the Dáil chamber is buried within Leinster House and has no windows, it is as enclosed a space as could be imagined. This decision does not make public health sense; rather, it makes a mockery of the guidance.”

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Today with Sarah McInerney programme, O’Brien questioned the decision to have three figures, all integral to Ireland’s fight against Covid-19, in the same room for an extended length of time. 

“Those witnesses and the committee are going to be in the room together for three and a half hours or four hours, against the backdrop where all the public health advice is, and the rules of the committee given by the Oireachtas, were that meetings with witnesses should not exceed two hours,” O’Brien said. 

“I understand they do need more than two hours with these set of witnesses, but creating a scenario where they’re all together for either three and a half or four hours out of four and a half, clearly changes the risk profile.”

“In this particular session, we’re going to have the head of the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and the head of the HSE – all there at the same time. So if the worst case were to happen, and these individuals were either required to self-isolate or became infected, then the impact of that would be, I think, catastrophic for our capacity to continue to function as well as we have been in relation to Covid-19,” O’Brien added. 

The set up, he said, “just seems to be inadvisable and too great a risk”. 

Independent TD Michael McNamara, who chairs the committee, stressed that no concerns had been raised by any of the participants. 

“We’ll be sitting in the Dáil chamber and the Houses of the Oireachtas has taken advice on social distancing to make sure that all required social distancing is maintained,” he said. 

“The committee will be in the Dáil chamber and some witnesses will be in the Dáil chamber,” he added. McNamara also said that some witnesses would appear via video link while seated in a separate committee room. 

Such a set up, he said, was for witnesses to enjoy privilege. 

“So some witnesses will be in the Dáil chamber and some witnesses will be in Committee Room One, so there will be a considerable distance maintained,” he said. 

McNamara acknowledged that some committee members would be in the same space for a considerable period of time, but said that was no different from when the Dáil sat. 

“We will be doing everything possible to ensure that witnesses aren’t in the chamber for more than two hours. But the other point is, obviously, we have invited the witnesses, these are witnesses with considerable expertise in the area. We haven’t yet received any concerns,” he said. 

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In response, O’Brien suggested that in the past some witnesses might have been hesitant about raising concerns with Oireachtas committees. 

“I would also say in advance of going into an Oireachtas Committee, and I have been into many myself, one of the things you’d consider very carefully is the advisability and what it does to the overall mood of raising concerns as a witness,” he said. 

Details of the sitting of the committee can be found here

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