Stephen Donnelly defends taking time off during Dubai trip

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Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has defended taking time off during a taxpayer-funded trip to Dubai with top civil servant Robert Watt, insisting that the pair ‘worked non-stop’ while in the UAE.

The Fianna Fáil minister and the secretary general of the Department of Health travelled to the Middle East for the Dubai 2020 Expo’s health and wellness week, which ran from January 27 to February 2.

Documents released under Freedom of Information revealed Stephen Donnelly’s team turned down an offer for the minister to participate at an event on Sunday, January 30, which had been arranged by the office of Ireland’s Ambassador to the UAE, Aidan Cronin. The documents also referenced a ‘golf event’ that was attended by Mr Watt, who earns more than €294,000 per year, during the trip.

Stephen Donnelly
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has defended taking time off during a taxpayer-funded trip to Dubai with top civil servant Robert Watt, insisting that the pair ‘worked non-stop’ while in the UAE. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

On Monday, Mr Donnelly said: ‘I don’t think anyone would begrudge anyone a day off at a weekend… We worked non-stop when we were there. Obviously, we were engaged with the local healthcare authorities, with ambulance services. It was important to me to see some of the new health technology that was being showcased.’

The minister added that while in the UAE, he and Mr Watt were ‘doing our day jobs as well’ and said he worked until the early hours of the morning on one occasion during the trip. ‘I think we got to the hotel the night we arrived at around 1am. I worked until about 3.30am and was in a breakfast briefing straight away the next morning,’ he said.

He added: ‘It was a very valuable trip in terms of relations and also in terms of supporting Irish businesses. It was a very significant showcasing of Ireland’s healthcare technology and Irish SMEs.’

Stephen Donnelly Vaccine Allocation Strategy
The Fianna Fáil minister and the secretary general of the Department of Health travelled to the Middle East for the Dubai 2020 Expo’s health and wellness week, which ran from January 27 to February 2. Pic: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The FoI documents revealed approximately €1,000 was spent on a chauffeur service for the minister and the civil servant during the trip. Writing in response to a parliamentary question from Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy in February, the Health Minister said the costs relating to his trip to Dubai represented ‘good value for money’.

Economy-class flights to the UAE for Mr Donnelly’s four-strong delegation amounted to €2,995.24, while accommodation and transport cost approximately €6,250.

Mr Donnelly and Mr Watt previously came under fire for attending the expo while serious failings in the South Kerry Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service were revealed in a report. At the time, Taoiseach Micheál Martin defended their decision to attend the Dubai 2020 Expo, describing it as a ‘major world event’.