Hospital controversy damaging public view of Government, Varadkar says

Taoiseach says he understands taxpayers ‘very annoyed’ about cost overrun

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he did not find Simon Harris’s “explanations credible at all”. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he did not find Simon Harris’s “explanations credible at all”. Photograph: Laura Hutton

 

The cost overrun on the national children’s hospital project has damaged public “faith and confidence” in the Government, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar made the comment as his colleagues continued to defend the handling of the matter by Minister for Health Simon Harris. He has been criticised about the overspend on the hospital, the cost of which could ultimately exceed €2 billion, and how the details of it have emerged.

New documents show there have been discussions about scaling back a 53-bed parent’s wing at the hospital because of rising costs on that aspect of the project.

The Children’s Hospital Project and Programme Board, established by the Government to ensure the project is delivered against an agreed time line, in November considered concerns about the cost of the wing, which is being sponsored by Ronald McDonald House, a charitable arm of the fast-food chain McDonald’s.

Minutes of board meetings show that its members were told that Ronald McDonald House (RMH) had been in contact with the Health Service Executive about the charity’s contribution to the family accommodation unit.

“Cost inflation over the past year has added an additional €1.5m, with the cost estimated by the HSE Estates at €20m plus,” the minutes state. “In discussions with the HSE, RMH Charity proposed it provide €10m, and the State the balance. The board identified descoping RMH as a means of limiting costs.”

Savings

The Cabinet will next week discuss how it intends to generate some €100 million in savings from across Government departments as part of an effort to cover off the escalating cost of the children’s hospital, which is being built on a site on the St James’s Hospital campus in Dublin 8. About €50 million of the saving will come from the Department of Health with the rest being sought from across the other Government departments. The need to make the saving will result in some other capital projects being delayed.

A senior source told The Irish Times last night that while the calculations around how to save €100 million were not finalised, the situation was “not that bad.”

Some capital projects were “stuck in planning” or subject to courts proceedings so payments that the Government had projected would need to be made this year will not be sought, said the source, who added that other projects were running under budget.

Speaking in Belfast yesterday, Mr Varadkar reiterated that he has confidence in Mr Harris, who has defended his handling of the overrun on the project amid criticism from the Opposition. He would not say if Mr Harris should issue an apology to the Dáil over the information he provided the House about the hospital, as has been requested by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin.

“So I have every confidence in Mr Harris but obviously I am not going to pre-empt what he is going to say in the Dáil next week. I am sure he will want to write that statement for himself,” the Taoiseach said.

He said he understood that taxpayers were “very annoyed” about the overrun.

“I feel that, I get that, and I understand that. I know that for a lot of people it will have damaged their faith and confidence in the Government that I lead and our ability to manage the finances,” he said.

Brexit

Mr Martin, whose party props up the minority Government, yesterday told KFM that people did not want an election to take place until there was clarity as to what was happening in the Brexit process.

However, he said he did not find Mr Harris’s “explanations credible at all”.

When asked if Mr Harris’s position was untenable, Mr Martin said: “First of all the Minister needs to correct the Dáil [record] and he needs to apologise to the Dáil. Just take it one step at a time, I am not going to rush my fences.”

He added: “This is a very serious issue, and there are two issues. One is the actual over-expenditure, which is a scandal. And, in my view, the secrecy around that and the fact that the Minister told no one, if we are to believe what is being said, until November, even though he knew himself in August. That is very serious, it is very serious for the Government.”

There was a growing sense among Fine Gael TDs last night that Mr Harris would correct the Dáil record.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has also written to Mr Martin to ask him to state whether he has confidence in the Minister, and has asked if he will support a motion of no confidence in Mr Harris. Mr Martin has not responded to the letter.