Donnelly and Holohan clash over membership of body to replace Nphet as Covid case numbers soar

Health Minister and departing chief medical officer at odds amid warnings over infection levels

Dr Tony Holohan is to leave his post as chief medical officer and take up a role at Trinity College Dublin later this year

The disagreement between Stephen Donnelly, above, and Dr Tony Holohan is being downplayed by allies of the Health Minister. Picture by Brian Lawless

Hugh O'Connell and Maeve Sheehan

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and outgoing chief medical officer Tony Holohan are at odds over a new Covid-19 advisory group as case numbers soar and hospitals brace for a surge in admissions amid the highly infectious BA2 variant.

Projections circulated to hospitals last week by the HSE suggest how in a pessimistic scenario, Covid case numbers could keep rising over the next fortnight, making the surge in infections one of the largest this country has yet seen.

Dr Holohan last week advised the Government there was no need to change current public health advice prior to announcing that he will step down as CMO this summer to take up a new role at Trinity College Dublin.

But the Sunday Independent can reveal Mr Donnelly and his chief pandemic adviser disagree over the membership of a new group that will succeed the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) in monitoring the disease and making recommendations to Government.

The CMO wrote a four-page letter to Mr Donnelly on February 17 setting out the future approach to Covid-19, having made clear his position at the last Nphet meeting that same day that the emergency phase of the pandemic was largely over.

Dr Holohan has outlined who he believes should serve on this small core public health group, including himself, the deputy CMO Ronan Glynn, Cillian De Gascún of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), and Philip Nolan of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG).

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It was also advised that representatives from the HSE’s antimicrobial resistance and infection control programme should be members. These could include the HSE’s Martin Cormican, Colm Henry, the chief clinical officer, and at least one regional public health director.

One senior source said Mr Donnelly wanted a different group for a different purpose to that which Holohan recommended, which, the source argued, “perpetuates the sense of emergency”.

A spokesperson for Mr Donnelly said: “The minister is working closely with the CMO to finalise membership of this new Covid advisory group.

The minister wishes to ensure that any new group that is advising him and government, includes a broad range of relevant expertise from both the medical and scientific communities.

“Our understanding and experience of this virus has greatly expanded and it is important that this is reflected in the composition of the new Covid advisory group”.

The disagreement between Mr Donnelly and Dr Holohan over membership is being downplayed by allies of the minister, but there has been a delay of several weeks in establishing the advisory group to succeed Nphet at a time when case numbers are hitting unprecedented levels. There is no clear indication when the group will be formed.

Meanwhile, Tony Canavan, chief executive of the Saolta University Health Care Group, said he expects the pessimistic scenario set out by the HSE in its projections will play out.

“Our expectation is that because of the amount of social activity, the public health measures being relaxed, and the movement of people last week, particularly around St Patrick’s Day celebrations, that those numbers will remain high and possibly escalate further over the coming fortnight,” he said.

Mr Canavan said enormous pressure was coming on A&Es. He said the requirement to isolate patients in hospitals was adding to pressure, resulting in beds having to close to create isolation space. He questioned whether the requirement should be risk assessed for the benefit of all patients.

Meanwhile, the HSE is to ask Ukrainian doctors in Ireland to urge Ukrainian families seeking refuge here to get vaccinated. With only 34pc of Ukraine’s population vaccinated before Russia invaded, the HSE expects most of the estimated 200,000 refugees that may arrive will be unvaccinated.

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