Simon Harris says children’s hospital to go ahead despite ‘colossal’ cost overrun

‘It’s a mess,’ admits Department of Health head as scaled-down project ruled out

Minister for Health Simon Harris has promised to “hold feet to the coals” in relation to the “massive” and “colossal” overrun in the cost of building the new national children’s hospital. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris has promised to “hold feet to the coals” in relation to the “massive” and “colossal” overrun in the cost of building the new national children’s hospital. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

Paul Cullen,

Health Editor

Minister for Health Simon Harris has promised to “hold feet to the coals” in relation to the “massive” and “colossal” overrun in the cost of building the new national children’s hospital.

However, Mr Harris said he wanted to see the report commissioned from external consultants on the cost overrun before deciding whether a failure of financial management was involved.

Mr Harris said the Government was extraordinarily disappointed, frustrated and worried about the cost overrun on the project and would not be found wanting in learning lessons from what happened. However, there was “no talk” of pausing the project or moving it to another site.

Asked by Fianna Fail health spokesman Stephen Donnelly if he accepted a “catastrophic failure of financial management” was involved, Mr Harris said he would answer this question when the report by consultants PWC into the overrun was published in March.

Asked whether he had confidence in the development board, he said people were entitled to due process and he would await the PWC report. “Should this position change, they’ll be notified.”

“Something” had gone wrong and there needed to be accountability, he added.

Mr Harris hit out at a “level of ignorance” in some criticisms of the project, such as the suggestion there was no need to build the planned roof garden, when this was for some of the sickest children in the country who are not in a position to leave the hospital.

Comparing the number of beds in the new facility to the number of beds in the existing children’s hospitals “missed the point”, he said. All of the new beds were in single rooms, while the number of operating theatre was being increased from 14 to 22.

The Government’s decision to proceed with the project was one of the hardest he had been involved in as a minister, but it came from an understanding that the project could not be stopped because it was so badly needed.

Secretary general of the Department of Health Jim Breslin said the situation was a mess and he was “totally unhappy” with it. The main explanation for the increase in costs related to the gap in the price between the first preliminary design and the final one, due to an increase in the quantities of material required.

He had also considered the role of “scope and user creep” in pushing up costs but this was not the primary explanation.

Descoping, or reducing the size of the project, was considered but given the size of the overrun, descoping by one-third would have been needed.

This would have meant the redesign of the hospital, a change to the external fabric, and a new planning application and tender process adding three years to the completion date.

“You would have ended up with an inferior hospital at same cost, and you would have deferred building of the project for a generation. It would have ended in a bigger mess.”