Tony Holohan, Finian McGrath ignored whistleblower's account of illegality in health service

While he was chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan ignored a later proven account of lawbreaking across the Irish health service.

Former disabilities minister Finian McGrath, who has recently spoken of running for the Dáil again, similarly failed to act, having been forwarded the account of lawbreaking by taoiseach Leo Varadkar. 

Correspondence seen by The Ditch shows that whistleblower Shane Corr – who was featured in a March 2021 episode of RTÉ Investigates discussing unlawful data collection by the Department of Health and HSE – wrote to Holohan describing how the health service was illegally harvesting sensitive data about patients engaged in legal action against the state. 

Corr says neither Holohan nor McGrath replied. More than three years later the Data Protection Commission found, about Corr’s allegations, “What happened was such an unlawful practice that the state and an organ of the State was involved in an unlawful practice against vulnerable people.”

Ignored for months

Department of Health civil servant Shane Corr in February 2020 told the office of the taoiseach that the health service was secretly collecting data on patients involved in litigation against the state, saying, “This was in aid of an official strategy to manage people to whom such liabilities may have been due.”

The office told him the matter had been forwarded to minister of state for disability issues Finian McGrath, who would reply in due course. 

Corr received no further correspondence from the taoiseach or McGrath’s office.

He then wrote to Department of Health secretary general Jim Breslin expressing his concerns. Breslin responded the following day with information about the protected disclosure process. Corr sent another email to Breslin on 11 March, saying that illegal data collection was ongoing and expressing hope that the matter could be resolved promptly.

"May I respectfully remind you of my recent emails regarding unlawful and unethical behaviours across the health service, and the related evidence which is located here in the Department of Health," he wrote. 

"I understand that managing this very difficult and challenging period reduces the resources required to tackle other matters. Nevertheless, I believe that a date can be fixed so that a process of bringing these matters to the attention of the victims and their families, as well as the public, can commence."

Corr then contacted Dr Holohan in April 2020 with evidence that the health service was breaking the law. He also requested that an external third party be brought in to examine said evidence. 

"I have offered to show the evidence to an independent person, as I believe that the circumstances should be made public," he wrote to Holohan. "However, that offer has not yet been taken up. Had it been taken up, I believe that by now, I would either have been shown to have been mistaken, or that the matters are correct as I have described them."

Corr sent another email to Holohan in May 2020. 

Writing of the subjects of the illegal data collection, Corr said, “The subjects, their families and their legal representatives were uninformed of the information gathering; it was covert. Correspondence shows that the activities were centrally controlled and that a number of government departments and offices were involved.”

Holohan again ignored the mail. 

In July of the same year Corr brought the matter to the attention of department of health HR manager Gráinne Duffy. Corr began engaging with the national broadcaster in September 2020.

Shane Corr told The Ditch, "I was disappointed that no action appeared to have been taken following my emails.”

Holohan and McGrath declined to comment.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors