The Government is not actively looking at an alternative to the St Vincent's campus at Elm Park in south Dublin as the location for the planned new national maternity hospital, the Minister for Health has said.
Stephen Donnelly said no options had been taken off the table but any move to another location would add several years to the timeline for completing the project.
He told the Oireachtas committee on health on Wednesday that moving to another location would also significantly increase the cost of the project.
Senator Martin Conway of Fine Gael asked whether the Government was working on a Plan B as an alternative to the site at Elm Park.
“The plan is that we build at Elm Park and secure the State’s investment and we secure clinical and operational independence for the national maternity hospital. That needs to remain our focus,” Mr Donnelly replied.
“This project has gone on far too long for us to be looking to do something fundamentally different right now. However, all options remain on the table. But I want the department focused on doing what is needed now to get this hospital built as quickly as possible.”
The plan to move the National Maternity Hospital from its current location in Holles Street to the campus of St Vincent's Hospital has become embroiled in criticism surrounding the planned lease agreement as well claims surrounding possible influence of a Catholic ethos in the hospital's governance. The Religious Sisters of Charity are due to transfer ownership of lands at St Vincent's to an independent entity but unease with the arrangement remains in some political quarters.
Mr Conway suggested that if talks surrounding the new maternity hospital on the site at St Vincent’s were not completed by the end of the year, the Government would have to actively consider a Plan B.
Mr Donnelly said: “You may well be right, Senator.”
The Minister said he had had a productive engagement in talks with stakeholders and hoped there would be an agreement in place within weeks with a caveat that some of his predecessors had made similar statements in the past.
David Cullinane of Sinn Féin asked the Minister about potentially using compulsory purchase powers by the State to acquire the site at the St Vincent's campus.
Mr Donnelly said going down the road of compulsory purchase orders would also present significant risks. He said the State might not be successful in securing an order while it would also add to the time scale for the project.
The Minister said the development of the planned new maternity hospital was supposed to be a partnership that needed to be entered into in good faith.
He said starting a potentially 50- or 100-year partnership in the courts may not bode well for the future.
The Minister said his preference was for the State to own the land on which the new national maternity hospital will be built. He said the State’s core objectives were to provide a world-class facility and to ensure all clinically appropriate services that were legally permissible were provided for women who needed them.
He also said that the State’s investment in the new hospital project must be protected.
“I have been very clear that I will not be bringing any proposal to Government unless it provides assurances around all legally permissible services being provided in the new national maternity hospital, as well as affirming that the State’s investment is safeguarded,” the Minister said.
Mr Donnelly said all procedures were permitted at St Vincent’s at present. He said a termination could be carried out at St Vincent’s if a woman was severely ill but that in the normal course of events such procedures would be carried out at a maternity hospital.
The Minister said he would seek to provide answers to queries raised by various members of the committee as to the number of terminations carried out at St Vincent’s.
The Minister said regardless of whether the State owned the land on which the new maternity hospital was built, it was important to focus on the governance structures and the clinical independence.
Mr Donnelly said there had been “further engagement with stakeholders in the national maternity hospital project, as we move toward finalisation of legal arrangements”.
The Minister said that €51 million had been spent so far by the State on enabling works for the main national maternity hospital project at Elm Park. This involved work on a replacement pharmacy and on extending the car park.