Retendering children’s hospital contract not an option – Harris
Minister says he wants ‘everyone to continue doing what they’ve signed up to do’
Minister for Health Simon Harris. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Retendering the national children’s hospital contract is not an option, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said.
Mr Harris’s comments come as confidential documents revealed the national children’s hospital board believes there would be “little or no” international interest and limited domestic interest if they retendered the project following dramatic cost escalations.
“I’m happy for the project to continue,” Mr Harris said on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane Show on Saturday. “I want everyone to continue doing what they’ve signed up to do, build the project that’s been promised for decades.”
Bam, the construction firm, said on Friday it would step down from the construction of the hospital if the board asked it to do so.
The cost of the children’s hospital project has risen from an estimated €800 million in 2014, to €983 million in 2017, and €1.43 billion now.
Equipping the building and providing IT pushes this bill up to €1.73 billion; this does not include the cost of family accommodation, a research centre, excess construction inflation and any other changes to clinical standards. The Government has commissioned consultants PwC to examine how the price of the hospital has grown to €1.7 billion.
Mr Harris said that the option of retendering was considered at the time that cost overruns first emerged, but that he had already decided to proceed with the project as retendering would cost more and would take longer, and that this decision which had been backed by the Government.
“I brought the recommendation to Government and Government agreed to get on with it . . . and that’s what the priority has to be,” he said.
Regarding the Taoiseach’s comments about “low balling” by contractors earlier this week (where a company would submit a low bid for a project with the aim of recouping costs later), Mr Harris said that Mr Varadkar had “expressed . . . a frustration a hell of a lot of us are feeling. “[HE] was saying if any company didn’t step up to the plate, let them face the consequences.”
Mr Harris said that he wanted the PwC team appointed to investigate the cost overruns to be allowed continue its work. “There’s an inquiry, we’ve commissioned it, can we let it look at the issues and see where it brings us,” he said, adding that it was sometimes forgotten that the hospital is currently under construction. “People are talking about this as though it’s a concept for the future, it’s being built today,” he said.
Mr Harris apologised “most sincerely” earlier this week for not providing fuller information in reply to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Barry Cowen. The apology followed a statement by Mr Harris on September 18th last year in response to a question from Mr Cowen that the budget for the hospital “was in line with the expected expenditure profile”.
However, Mr Harris had been told on August 27th there were significant additional costs of €191 million, plus a further €200 million which was being disputed.
Mr Harris defended the level of information he shared with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe about the costs, saying officials in their respective departments engaging on a matter before it being elevated to ministerial level is “the way these things normally happen” and that had Mr Donohoe been told of the potential cost overruns “he would have said to do exactly what I was doing”.
“It would have been helpful to know what the cost was at an earlier point... (but) I don’t believe you make better decisions with partial information than full information”.
He said the suggestion that he was hoping an election would intervene and make tackling the cost overruns his successor’s problem was “kind of preposterous”.
He said it was “clear” he enjoyed the support of the Taoiseach. “I am working very closely with him and getting stuff done”.
“What would be a real scandal. . . is having spent two hundred and something million on a hospital so far, not to build it, and allow children be collateral damage in a political spat,” he said.