Patient ‘Emily’ shows why national children’s hospital is badly needed

Long-running hospital saga has cost taxpayer €40m without one brick being laid

Make it happen. That would sum up most people’s view of the long-running national children’s hospital saga, which has already cost the taxpayer almost €40 million without a single brick being laid.

The reason we so badly need a state-of-the-art children’s hospital was aptly illustrated at yesterday’s launch of the design team by the case of Emily, a six-year-old (admittedly fictional) patient with a brain tumour.

Emily needs surgery, provided at Temple Street children's hospital or Beaumont Hospital. But she also needs chemo, so she has to cross the Liffey to the children's hospital at Crumlin. And she needs radiation therapy, which is carried out at St Luke's Hospital in Rathgar.

That’s a lot of travelling and unnecessary stress for a family already under huge pressure, and that’s before the difficulties of traffic and parking are taken into account.

The new children’s hospital will provide all these services under the one roof. Greater throughput of patients will allow for greater specialisation and better outcomes. The vision outlined yesterday was certainly exciting – single en-suite rooms for all children, imaging surgery, even wifi throughout the hospital.

The problem is that we’ve been here before. All the promises about building a “world-class hospital” were made before, when the project was being developed at the Mater. Then, as now, those behind the project were endlessly optimistic.

"This is about the nation getting behind this project to deliver the finest children's hospital," exclaimed Eilish Hardiman, chief executive of the Children's Hospital Group, yesterday. This is the same Eilish Hardiman who headed up the previous plan to build the hospital at the Mater. That team ploughed on regardless in spite of growing criticisms, and finally crashed when An Bord Pleanála torpedoed their designs.

So will this plan at St James’s fare any better? Hopefully lessons have been learned from the Mater experience. St James’s is a larger site. It has good public transport access and the adult hospital is top-notch.

Yet doubts remain. Car access is awful. Moving a sewer might cost up to €10 million. Parking space is limited, though at least the design team recognise the challenge that exists here. Building underground parking space would add €30 million to the cost.

The children's hospital should be co-located with a maternity hospital but that won't happen for a decade, if it ever happens. Mystery still surrounds the last-minute decision by Government to send the project to the Rialto end of St James's rather than adjacent to the nearby Coombe Maternity Hospital.

The slippage in timelines continues. Former minister for health James Reilly swore a hole in a pot that the hospital would be open in 2018, when it was clear this was too ambitious. However, losing a few months won’t matter if the project is done properly.

Ultimately, now that current Minister Leo Varadkar has thrown his weight behind the current location, the fate of the project will be decided by An Bord Pleanála. That crystallises the challenge for the design team – create a building that is, say, up to nine storeys and it will probably pass muster with the planning officials. The behemoth planned for the Mater rose to 16 storeys in an inner-city location and looked completely out of place.

This is the largest healthcare project in the history of the State. The stakes are high, and for no one higher than Mr Varadkar and his Government, should planning permission be refused.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times