Thursday, July 04, 2019

I’VE always believed that one of the most important roles of a journalist is to stick with stories, long after they have had their day in the sun. For the people directly involved it can be a lonely and demoralising feeling when everyone wants to talk to you, and everyone has sympathy for you and suddenly they’re all gone and all you’re left with is the hand that you were originally dealt.

It’s fair to say that the tale of the mortuary had an extended holiday in the sun – without doubt the most exposure that any story I’ve ever been involved with has received. However, now that the news cycle has moved on – as it mercilessly does every week – it’s my job to make sure that questions that were asked at the time get answered, and promises that were made, get delivered. With the perpetual bashing of journalists online, people would do well to remember that without them, they would be brutally ill-informed and would end up getting their news from extremists who believe that unicorns are evil and Governments are trying to control us with chemtrails in the sky and fluoride in our toothpaste.

One of the biggest issues I had with the mortuary story was how it was dealt with by the South/South West Hospital Group. They are notoriously terrible at communications but they outdid themselves with this one. Their first mistake was when the CEO of the group, Mr Gerry O’Dwyer decided to ignore a letter that was sent to him by four consultant pathologists who outlined the risks attached to the no longer fit for purpose mortuary. Their next mistake was to try and publicly discredit those pathologists by saying that they had “no evidence that would substantiate the claims contained in the letter” and that they had never received any complaints or incident reports in relation to the mortuary.

Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane issued a Parliamentary Question to the Minister for Health to ask “what action the management at University Hospital Waterford and the South/South West Hospital Group (SSWHG) took when they received a letter from four consultant pathologists outlining serious concerns relating to the mortuary”. The response to Deputy Cullinane was issued by the aforementioned Mr Gerry O’Dwyer, and it is truly astounding to me.

They say that the ‘Devil is in the detail’, but in this case, the Devil was in the information that Mr O’Dwyer left out. He started the letter by saying, “The SSWHG and the Management at UHW have been fully aware of the challenges associated with the Mortuary infrastructure for some time, with the issue reflected on the Hospital and S/SWHG Risk Registers.”

They were aware since 2003, when HSE Estates visited the building and deemed it unfit for purpose. Next, Mr O’Dwyer says, “Efforts to resolve the matter resulted in the inclusion of a new replacement Mortuary for UHW on the HSE Capital Plan since 2014.” So what he’s saying there is that even though they were aware since 2003, nothing was done for over a decade.

Then, he says, “Planning permission for the proposed new Mortuary was received in 2016.” It was 2015 actually but we won’t argue about that. “As a result of continued prioritisation of the project by S/SWHG and Acute Operations it was included as one of the top priority projects for consideration within the Capital Plan 2019.”

I got so angry when I read that paragraph. He makes no reference to the fact that the project, which was listed in the 2014 Capital Plan, was then dumped. And to make matters more unbelievable, he pretends that they were continually prioritising the project and it would have gotten the go-ahead even without the scandal that completely dominated a news cycle for almost three weeks. And still, he hasn’t answered Deputy Cullinane’s actual question. Gerry – what action did you take after you received the letter?

Oh here we go – “With regard to the actions taken following receipt of the correspondence dated the 22nd October from the Consultant Pathologists at UHW, the matter was discussed at local performance meetings attended by the S/SWHG and UHW Hospital Management teams.” He doesn’t give the dates of these meetings so we have to take his word for the fact that they took place. What we know for a fact is that he didn’t reply to the pathologists until the moment I sent in a Freedom of Information request asking to see the letter. That’s when they knew they were in trouble but instead of throwing his hands in the air and admitting that he made a mistake, he threw a load of waffle at Deputy Cullinane.

“The development of a new replacement Mortuary for UHW has been on the HSE Capital plan since 2014,” he said, trying to convince us that they have always been serious about it, whilst at the same time ignoring the fact that they were doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it, until their indifference towards the project was exposed.

“Following the appointment of the permanent Hospital Manager at the hospital in January, 2019, a meeting was arranged by the Hospital Manager with the Consultant Pathologists which took place in March, 2019. At this meeting, short and medium-term interim arrangements were discussed and have subsequently been put in place as outlined in the letter above.”

March 2019 is when I issued the Freedom of Information request. Not once in the letter did Gerry O’Dwyer mention the fact that he ignored the letter until March 2019. Not once in the letter did he admit that they went a decade doing nothing about the Mortuary and were preparing to go another decade doing nothing about it until the whole thing exploded in their faces.

Why have I dedicated an entire column to this? Because this letter shows a CEO from the upper echelons of Ireland’s public health system attempting to cover his tracks and failing to actually admit when mistakes were made. We will never understand the implications, both financially and for the health of our citizens, of when our top Civil Service brass do everything in their power to cover their tracks and pretend that they did nothing wrong. Mr O’Dwyer and his group made a number of mistakes with regard to the mortuary and they didn’t admit to one of them. They also refused to apologise for attempting to discredit the pathologists, something which the leader of our country was big enough to do. And this is the group that manages our hospital.

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