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Ministers Katherine Zappone and Finian McGrath
chopping block

Ministers Zappone and McGrath believe HSE boss should step aside

Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, has called for Tony O’Brien to go.

Updated 7.53pm

TWO CABINET MINISTERS have said they believe the HSE boss Tony O’Brien should step aside.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Minister of State for Disabilities Finian McGrath told their Cabinet colleagues today they want the director general to stand aside. However, both will go along with government decision and will not back any motion to remove him.

A government spokesperson said the ministers understand they are “very much in the minority”. The two ministers will toe the government line if a motion of no confidence in O’Brien is put forward, with the spokesperson adding that Zappone and McGrath were expressing their “personal views” on the matter.

While reportedly Communications Minister Denis Naughten also wanted the HSE chief executive to step aside, a spokesperson denied this was the case and clarified that he is “supportive with the approach Minister Harris has taken” which leaves O’Brien in his role until the summer.

The position of Transport Minister Shane Ross could not be established as of yet, said a government spokesperson.

A number of other ministers including Simon Coveney and Simon Harris have avoided stating if they have confidence in O’Brien. A spokesperson for the Taoiseach said Leo Varadkar “has confidence in him [O'Brien] to finish up the job he started”.

Pressure has been mounting on the HSE boss to step aside in light of the CervicalCheck scandal.

Speaking in the Dáil today, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said for there to be accountability over the CervicalCheck scandal, the HSE Chief Executive must be removed from office.

Last week, Sinn Féin announced that it would be submitting a motion of no confidence in Tony O’Brien.

However, its motion of no confidence, which had been intended as an amendment to a separate HSE/Slaintecare motion from the Rural Independents tonight, has not been allowed to go ahead, and will instead be heard next Tuesday.

McDonald said the victims of the scandal have also called for O’Brien to go.

The CervicalCheck scandal came into the public eye earlier this month when Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, settled a High Court action against a US laboratory for €2.5 million over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

Calls for Tony O’Brien to go

Phelan has since called for O’Brien to step aside.

Over the past 14 days, more information has continued to emerge about the controversy whereby women were told that they had normal smear test results in error. While not a test for cancer, a smear test that results in an abnormal reading can warrant further investigations to test for the presence of cancer.

It has since emerged that more than 1,500 women who developed cervical cancer did not have their cases reviewed by CervicalCheck.

McDonald also raised the case of Stephen Teap in the Dáil today.

Teap’s wife Irene was diagnosed with stage two cancer in 2015 and died in July last year, leaving behind two young sons. She had two false negative tests in 2010 and 2013. She died never having been told this.

Stephen Teap has also called for O’Brien to step aside from his role.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he saw the “beautiful” Teap family photo in the newspapers over the weekend, adding that he fully understood the public’s anger over the “drip drip” of information in the last week.

He said the focus now should be about getting answers about what happened at CervicalCheck and not on calling for heads to roll.

Varadkar said a number of people have already been removed from their roles, and he refused to rule out that further heads would not roll over the matter in the future.

“Of course people want accountability and the government wants it too… we have had resignations already. The clinical director of CervicalCheck has resigned. The manager of CervicalCheck has stepped aside from her role and has been replaced by Damien McCallion.

“It may be the case that more heads may roll in the period ahead, but it is important that they are the right heads and that we proceed with this inquiry as the Government has indicated. I do not think that our focus should be on looking for heads. This should not be about any one man,” said the Taoiseach.

He said O’Brien, who is due to retire in a matter of months, is best placed to feed into the scoping inquiry and said his remaining time in the job should be spent focusing on getting answers to the many questions the inquiry is seeking answer.

‘Disservice’ to the victims

McDonald told the Taoiseach that his refusal to sack O’Brien does a disservice to the victims of this scandal.

She said it isn’t about “looking for heads” but about accountability.

The Sinn Féin leader said to members of the public it looks like O’Brien is “untouchable”.

She pointed out that this is not the first HSE scandal he has presided over.

Pressure has been mounting on O’Brien since Sinn Féin voiced no confidence in O’Brien last week. This was followed by calls from Fianna Fáil’s health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly for the director general to go.

Over the weekend, it was revealed O’Brien will leave his role at the beginning of July, four weeks earlier than expected.

O’Brien’s leaving early is not down to the scandal but was instead attributed to him using up his annual leave entitlements.

Motion of no confidence

Following Leaders’ Questions today, the Ceann Comhairle informed McDonald that her amendment of a motion of no confidence in Tony O’Brien has been ruled out of order.

The Ceann Comhairle told McDonald the amendment is a breach of Oireachtas Standing Order 470, but Sinn Féin disagrees.

Speaking to reporters today, McDonald said the refusal to accept her party’s motion will not be the end of the matter. Sinn Féin said it plans to move the motion during its private mamber’s time in the Seanad next week, if necessary.

McDonald said if the government is fully committed to ensuring there is accountability in the health service, the HSE boss must go. She accused the government of being “all talk” and no action.

New HSE boss

The Taoiseach said an advertisement for the new head of the HSE will be published either this week or next. There will be a period of time where the position will be vacant, but the health minister said an interim boss will be in place by July.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil today that some “head-hunting” for the next HSE chief executive has already begun.

He also updated TDs about the numbers of calls to the CervicalCheck helpline.

A total of 11,000 calls were made to the helpline, with 7,678 women requesting call backs.

Separately today, the health minister outlined the terms of reference for the scoping inquiry into the smear test scandal. Cabinet was also told of the minister’s intention to appoint a new HSE board.

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