The Government has failed to get to grips with the crippling cost of school

Simon Harris has counteracted challenges with new initiatives or recycled old ones

Fine Gael Minister for Health Simon Harris: the first 100 days in office have been kind to him.

Fine Gael Minister for Health Simon Harris: the first 100 days in office have been kind to him.

 

The appointment of Simon Harris as Minister for Health puzzled some. Harris was elected to the Dáil in 2011; five years later he was given the political equivalent of a poison chalice.

Harris (29) replaced Leo Varadkar. All independent commentators agree Varadkar failed to deliver real or effective change.

The first 100 days of Harris’s time in Hawkins House have been kind to him. The time of year, no doubt, helps. It has given him the space and the time to announce a series of small but significant proposals.

The first was to accept a proposal by Social Democrat TD Róisín Shortall to the establishment of an all-party Oireachtas committee preparing a 10-year strategy for the health sector. Politically it was a genius move. In one swoop he had won the applause of Opposition TDs, who have often found rich political pickings by pointing up problems in Health. It also defuses any political disputes by allowing the Opposition mould his policies.

Harris seems eager to avoid making the mistakes of his predecessors and has counteracted every challenge with new initiatives or, at the very least, recycled old ones.

Since taking office he has directed €50 million every year to deal with high waiting lists and has reactivated the National Treatment Purchase Fund. He has secured additional funds for the HSE including a full restoration of the mental health budget.

The Minister has also pledged medical card changes and oversaw the signing of an agreement between the pharmaceuticals sector that promises to deliver savings of €750 million on the State’s drugs bill.

This year we are set to see a sugar tax in the budget and there is a 10-year plan in the pipeline to tackle obesity

Like every minister, Harris has entered office promising change, proposing to transform the way the health service is structured. If energy and enthusiasm are a barometer, Harris will be successful.

His early days have been promising but in reality the toughest ones lie ahead. The Wicklow Fine Gael TD, despite being a key player in the Government negotiations, had little or no input into the health policies agreed by Fine Gael and the Independents. Promises contained in the Programme for Partnership include the dismantling of the HSE, pledges to reduce emergency department waiting times and negotiating a new consultants contracts. These will be the real test of Harris’s time in office.

If his recent five-point plan to tackle waiting lists is anything to go by, he could be destined to make the same mistakes of his predecessors. Perhaps the most difficult question for Harris and his Fine Gael colleagues – and the wider political spectrum – is how to fund the various promised reforms.

During the election, childcare became a live issue during the debate. Fine Gael’s agreed Programme for Partnership with the Independents makes a series of pledges in this area including the introduction of a robust model for subsidised high-quality childcare for children aged nine to 36 months.

The commitment secured by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone states that an annual subsidy would be paid directly to centre-based childcare providers and registered childminders for children of this age range. The size of the subsidy under consideration is about €2,000 per child per year, or about €20 million per year.

Free GP care is available to all under sixes, but plans to extend that to all citizens have been abandoned. Instead Fine Gael committed to under-18s and older people with chronic illnesses availing of the scheme by 2020. It has also promised to make dental care free for children up to the age of six, but no timeframe has been indicated.

Criticism has been directed at the Government around the lack of assistance offered to families with school-going children. Back-to-school allowance has been cut by successive governments.

The Government, while new in office, has failed to get to grips with the crippling cost of school and has neglected to offer parents any real assistance in this area.

There is a series of promises contained within the Programme for Government to reduce class sizes, increase the mandatory school age to 17 and to appoint a new Ombudsman for Education for parents concerned about their children’s education. So far, just the Ombudsman commitment has been progressed.

It is premature to cast judgment on whether either Minister will be successful in leaving a legacy but it is worth noting that regardless of ambition and drive, policy is often dictated by the availability or non-availability of funding.

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