It was a Friday evening, 25 March, when a surprise press release dropped announcing that Dr Tony Holohan was to step down as Chief Medical Officer.

He was departing what had become one of the most powerful positions in the country, leading the public health response to the pandemic.

The statement said he would take up the position of Professor of Public Health Strategy and Leadership at Trinity College Dublin.

The exact details of the role – most importantly how it was to be funded – were not contained in the release.

The well wishes pour in.

But in the following weeks, details emerged that caused a political backlash. Dr Holohan announced he would not be taking up the post and the Government announced an independent review into the matter.

That has failed to quell the controversy. The Oireachtas Finance Committee, on foot of a request from Sinn Féin, is now seeking special powers to compel both the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, and the Secretary General of his Department, Robert Watt to answer questions before it.

Stephen Donnelly and Dr Tony Holohan pictured in December, 2021 (pic: Rollingnews.ie)

The Committee chair, John McGuinness, has accused the Government of feeding the public a "diet of smoke and mirrors, obfuscation, spin and a determined effort by Government to cloud the issue."

Following political pressure for more transparency, it was announced that Mr Watt and Dr Holohan are to appear before the Oireachtas Health Committee this Wednesday.

Here are some of the questions that remain unanswered about the CMO's secondment and committee members will no doubt be seeking answers to:

Where did the secondment idea come from?

The idea had its genesis in the late summer of 2021. The vaccine roll-out was going well and it seemed that the worst of Covid was abating.

In August 2021, Dr Holohan had "initial discussions" regarding "future work plans," according to a briefing note prepared on the matter by Mr Watt. The CMO indicated that he wished to consider his future options "including potential academic and international roles" Mr Watt said.

Then the pandemic took a turn for the worse, with the outbreak of Delta and then the Omicron variant, meaning these plans were put on hold and did not re-emerge until February, according to Mr Watt.

Committee members will be wondering why Trinity was chosen.

Due to concerns that these discussions appearing in the public domain "would distract from our response to the emerging situation" and because it was a HR matter, it was decided to keep the discussions among a small number of officials.

Dr Holohan reportedly told a private meeting of the Health Committee in early April that he was behind the creation of the role.

But the apparent lack of procedure around this is something that TDs are likely to seek more information on this week.

Trinity College in Dublin

Why was Trinity College chosen over others?

It is still unclear when Trinity College became involved or what discussions were held with other academic institutions.

According to Martin Fraser, who is Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, Dr Holohan indicated in February that he would be stepping down from his current role with a "possible role in the university sector."

There were, he told the Oireachtas Finance Committee last week "a couple of universities that he was considering at that point."

Robert Watt said that in February Dr Holohan "initiated more detailed engagement" and "had indicated to the university leaders that he was considering moving on from the role of CMO but also his willingness and desire to move on to a new challenge".

How common are open ended secondments in the civil service?

Trinity College said the role "was created with Dr Holohan in mind" and was not put out to open competition at the university.

Mr Watt also suggests the whole idea was driven by Dr Holohan himself: "The detail on how the appointment could be progressed was discussed between Dr Holohan and Trinity College and a proposal for a secondment arrangement was identified by Dr Holohan as his preferred approach.

"On 25 February the CMO formally sought support for a secondment to TCD."

Committee members will be wondering why Trinity was chosen, whether this was a competitive process and whether other academic institutions were given a fair chance to host the position.

Can it really be described as a secondment?

In December 2021, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued a circular headed Secondment Policy for the Civil Service.

The first "key principle" of circular 27 states that: "All secondments will be temporary in nature and in general will be for a period of six months, up to a maximum of five years."

This raises the question as to how an open ended secondment was agreed for Dr Holohan, and whether it fell within the rules?

Robert Watt is also set to appear before the Oireachtas Health Committee

Mr Watt refers to an arrangement in place that he seemingly suggests permitted this arrangement: "I was aware that the Government had recently endorsed open ended secondment arrangements to the university sector for senior civil servants," he explained.

"Given his long and distinguished service, and the crucial knowledge and ability he brought to bear in the pandemic, I felt it was equally important that Dr Holohan's expertise be retained and utilised in the public sector."

Asked by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty what arrangement was being referred to here, Martin Fraser told the Finance Committee last week: "I don’t know what he is referring to, I assume he is talking about former secretaries general who are seconded to the university sector.

"But I don’t know if they are open ended to be perfectly honest with you."

Mr Fraser - the country's most senior civil servant - said that when the secondment was being arranged, he did not know that it was to be open ended.

He suggested the open ended nature served the purpose of ensuring that Dr Holohan’s successor as CMO would not have felt they were in a temporary role. But he said: "That doesn’t mean when the secondment ended, that he wouldn’t return to another role."

So what arrangement was Robert Watt referring to? How common are open ended secondments in the civil service, and how binding is the circular on the matter?

Dr Tony Holohan will be stepping down as Chief Medical Officer

Who sanctioned the money?

This is where Wednesday’s Committee meeting will really get interesting.

On 16 March, Mr Watt wrote what he described as a "letter of comfort" to Linda Doyle, the Trinity College provost, which details the agreement of a €2 million annual payment to the university through the Health Research Board (HRB)

It said the Department of Health would continue to pay Dr Holohan’s annual salary of €187,000 and that Trinity would agree to facilitate him doing paid work "outside of the public service."

Mr Watt also wrote that the Department would agree to "make a ring fenced allocation of €2 million for the duration of the secondment, to be administered through the Health Research Board, a body under the aegis of the Department of Health, to support the development and activities of the inter-institutional collaboration led by Dr Holohan from his position in Trinity College Dublin.

The Department of Health

"The annual allocation will provide Trinity College Dublin with funds to provide for Dr Holohan’s salary until his retirement, superannuation contributions and relevant expenses such as professional membership, travel subsistence and legitimate professional requirements," the letter said.

But nowhere does Mr Watt state where the costing of the €2million per year would come from and no rationale is offered for the terms of the agreement with Trinity.

This raises questions around whether Mr Watt had the authority to sign off on such a sum of money?

Asked about this on Wednesday, Martin Fraser said "the Secretary General is responsible for all €22 billion of the health budget, so in a sense he has to sign off on it all.

"But as to whether he has discretion to allocate money, that is a separate matter."

Mr Watt acknowledged in his briefing note that the arrangement would become part of "the normal estimates process" for the department’s budget allocation "in due course."

But according to Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson, David Cullinane, the agreement to such funding is a "substantial policy matter" and therefore would have required the approval of the Minister. Which brings us to the next question…

Taoiseach Micheál Martin 'was not involved' in the proposed secondment

What were the Minister and the Taoiseach told?

The Taoiseach told the Dáil that he had "no hand, act or part" in arranging the so-called secondment and that he was "not involved in one way or the other" in the decision.

Mr Watt confirmed that Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, was made aware of the circumstances, "but was not informed about the precise details of the secondment arrangement."

Mr Watt maintained that it was a personnel issue.

But in a strong signal of his dissatisfaction with how it was handled, the Taoiseach said on 10 April: "People might have seen this as a personnel issue in the first instance.

"But it’s clear to me now that it’s broader than that in terms of what was envisaged around the research proposals involving universities and so forth.

Who calls the shots in the Department of Health?

"Anything that involves the spending of public money or any substantive multi-annual programme of research is a policy issue that does require approval by government," Micheál Martin said, adding that there was a need for "transparency from the outset".

This begs the question, that has already been posed by a number of TDs: who calls the shots in the Department of Health?

"This shows we have senior officials in the Department running rings around the Minister for Health," said David Cullinane.

This is something that needs to be explored further and no doubt will be when the Mr Watt appears before the Committee on Wednesday.