Belfast Telegraph

Taoiseach defends Health Minister over ex-HSE boss media comments

Leo Vardakar also accused the HSE of passing its problems on to the Department of Health.

The Taoiseach has stepped in to defend Minister for Health Simon Harris after a former health boss accused him of behaving like a “frightened little boy” during the cervical cancer screening scandal.

Leo Vardakar went on to accuse the HSE of passing its problems on to the Department of Health – a practice he said needs to stop.

In an interview with the Sunday Business Post, former HSE chief Tony O’Brien accused Mr Harris of being a weak minister.

Mr O’Brien, who resigned in May as head of the HSE over the cancer controversy, claimed Mr Harris was obsessed with media coverage and also attacked politicians who probed the issue.

In a move to defend his Cabinet minister, Mr Varadkar said: “The past six months alone, he brought through the referendum to repeal the Eighth amendment and at long last has enacted the public health alcohol bill – legislation that is going to save a lot of lives.

“Those are two pretty big achievements by a Health Minister in six months. I believe anything he may lack in terms of experience or age he makes up in his commitment and compassion.”

He said that “on balance” Mr O’Brien was a “good public servant” who gave the country some good service.

“But let’s not forget the circumstances under which he decided to step down early and that was the HSE’s very bad handling of the CervicalCheck controversy which he admits himself was a train wreck – I think he was right to step down early,” he continued.

Mr O’Brien’s comments have also been criticised by victims and campaigners of the CervicalCheck scandal.

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Lorraine Walsh, who received an incorrect smear test (Brian Lawless/PA)

Lorraine Walsh, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer after previously receiving inaccurate test results, said it was a pity Mr Tony O’Brien “couldn’t take responsibility for the disaster that is the HSE”, that he had led.

Mr Varadkar admitted there has always been difficulties in health, but added it is “not good enough” for the HSE to write letters passing on the problems to the Department of Health.

“That’s not what people are paid a lot of money to do,” he added.

“Most agencies accept it is their responsibility to come in on budget, but the HSE’s practice for many years now has been to pass the problem on to the department and that is something that has to change
– and it will certainly have to change now that we have a record budget for health, an extra €1 billion next year.

“If the Department of Education, if pretty much every government agency and government body can come in under budget it isn’t too much to ask the HSE to do so and it’s not good enough they just write letters passing the problem on to the department.

“As I always say, we have a lot of problems in health, nobody denies that.

“We have serious problem in overcrowding in our emergency departments, we’ve got a lot of people who are waiting for too long for the appointment they need or the treatment they need.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and that is the fact we have made enormous progress in health over the last couple of years.”

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