■ Dr Tony: Mea­sured voice of sci­ence who calmed nerves: Si­mon Car­swell,

Chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer thrust from largely back­room role into na­tion’s liv­in­grooms

The Irish Times - - Front Page - Si­mon Car­swell

In a Q&A Zoom call with a group of chil­dren in May, Dr Tony Holo­han was asked what the most re­ward­ing part of his job was as chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis. “The sense that we have helped peo­ple,” he replied.

To these young­sters at the vir­tual UCD fes­ti­val – and to the rest of the coun­try – the Dublin-born, Lim­er­ick-raised medic had be­come “Dr Tony”, the un­flap­pable doc­tor who calmed nerves dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

The chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer was thrust from a largely back­room role in the Depart­ment of Health into the liv­ing rooms of the na­tion with his daily tele­vised press brief­ings.

He was on the front line of a very pub­lic fight to stem the spread of the virus and pre­vent Covid-19 in­fec­tions and deaths soar­ing, with his sober an­nounce­ments fol­lowed closely ev­ery day.

The in­fec­tion curve could only have been flat­tened by rad­i­cal pub­lic ac­tion and Dr Holo­han be­came the mea­sured voice of sci­ence re­quired to ex­plain with con­fi­dence why peo­ple would have to ad­here to the most se­vere re­stric­tions ever im­posed on their every­day lives.


When his own health was in doubt – when he said he felt “a bit funny” dur­ing one of his daily brief­ings at the end of March – he be­came the news. Many sighed in re­lief when he re­turned less than 48 hours later after be­ing checked out in a Dublin hos­pi­tal.

His an­nounce­ment at the depart­ment’s Covid-19 press brief­ing on Thurs­day evening that he was step­ping back from his job to spend time with his wife Emer Feely, who has ter­mi­nal can­cer, and their two chil­dren brought an out­pour­ing of praise and sym­pa­thy.

It marks the end to a tu­mul­tuous four months of the day-to­day fire-fight­ing for Dr Holo­han in his job, his busiest time in a two-decade ca­reer as a pub­lic health of­fi­cial.

Wil­liam Ger­ard An­thony Holo­han be­came deputy chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer in 2001 and was pro­moted to chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer at the Depart­ment of Health in 2008.

A grad­u­ate of Monaleen na­tional school and Lim­er­ick’s CBS Sex­ton Street – the alma mater of busi­ness­man JP McManus – Dr Holo­han told those chil­dren dur­ing that Q&A in May that he came from a “house full of sis­ters” where he was “kind of the spokesman” – a pre­cur­sor of his later role.

He played Gaelic foot­ball and hurl­ing as a kid and has re­mained a pas­sion­ate sports fan and part-time coach, sup­port­ing his foot­ball club Tem­pleogue-Synge Street and Faughs hurl­ing hurl­ing, also in Tem­pleogue.

Away from sport, he stays fit by cy­cling home along the Grand Canal – an ac­tiv­ity he has used to ob­serve and re­mark on pub­lic be­hav­iour dur­ing the pan­demic.

He grad­u­ated from UCD med­i­cal school in 1991 and trained in gen­eral prac­tice at first, be­fore turn­ing to pub­lic health medicine and grad­u­at­ing with a mas­ters in the dis­ci­pline in 1996.

Dr Holo­han was one of the pub­lic health of­fi­cials tasked with re­view­ing and re­or­gan­is­ing the coun­try’s health ser­vice in the early 2000s that led to the cre­ation of the HSE in 2005.

Work­ing closely with then min­is­ter for health Mary Har­ney – and a reg­u­lar at her side dur­ing brief­ings – he was picked from a com­pet­i­tive field to be­come “CMO” dur­ing her ten­ure at the depart­ment.


He was im­me­di­ately thrown into a pub­lic health cri­sis, deal­ing with the fall­out from the pig-meat diox­ins scan­dal on his first day in the job in De­cem­ber 2008. The fol­low­ing year, he had to man­age the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the global swine flu out­break.

In 2018, Dr Holo­han found him­self at the cen­tre of con­tro­versy around the HSE’s fail­ure to dis­close in­cor­rect re­sults of old smear tests in the Cer­vi­calCheck screen­ing pro­gramme to af­fected women and their fam­i­lies. There were calls on him and other se­nior health of­fi­cials to re­sign from pa­tient ad­vo­cates.

He was also heav­ily crit­i­cised by politi­cians Alan Kelly, now Labour leader, and David Cul­li­nane, now Sinn Féin’s spokesman on health, over his aware­ness of is­sues around the tests dat­ing back to 2016 and his fail­ure to tell health min­is­ters at that time.

Dr Holo­han de­nied any wrong­do­ing and re­fused to stand down. Leo Varad­kar, who had been min­is­ter for health be­fore be­com­ing taoiseach, and his suc­ces­sor as health min­is­ter Si­mon Har­ris ul­ti­mately backed him.

The pan­demic has been a cri­sis of a far dif­fer­ent mag­ni­tude. Through­out Dr Holo­han has re­sponded to crit­i­cism of his team’s de­ci­sions on re­stric­tions – and the pace of how they are in­tro­duced or lifted – with fact-based anal­y­sis in the face of great po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic pres­sure.

For now, he is step­ping back as the pub­lic face of the State’s re­sponse team. He hands over his CMO du­ties to his deputy as he fo­cuses now on the care of his own fam­ily rather than the coun­try.

Dr Ro­nan Glynn

Dr Ro­nan Glynn, the deputy chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer since Oc­to­ber 2018, has taken over as act­ing CMO while Dr Holo­han is away from the role.

Dr Glynn sits to Dr Holo­han’s left dur­ing the reg­u­lar Na­tional Pub­lic Health Emer­gency Team brief­ings at the Depart­ment of Health and usu­ally pro­vides de­tails on the how virus is be­hav­ing as well as de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on “at-risk” groups, clus­ters and health guid­ance in spe­cific set­tings.

In Dr Holo­han’s oc­ca­sional ab­sence, he has chaired the brief­ing from time to time.

Dr Glynn qual­i­fied as a phys­io­ther­a­pist from UCD in 2002, a med­i­cal doc­tor from the Univer­sity of Aberdeen in 2007 and com­pleted a PhD in on­col­ogy at NUI Gal­way in 2012.

He ob­tained a mas­ters in pub­lic health from UCD in 2015. He worked as a can­cer re­searcher from 2008 to 2010 and as a spe­cial­ist regis­trar for the HSE from 2010 to 2018.

His fo­cus as act­ing CMO will be on re­open­ing the coun­try while tak­ing mea­sures to avoid a sec­ond wave of the virus sweep­ing across the coun­try.

Pho­to­graph: Crispin Rod­well

Dr Tony Holo­han: pro­moted to chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer at the Depart­ment of Health in 2008.

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