Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has guaranteed that abortions, IVF and other procedures contrary to Catholic ethos will be carried out in the new National Maternity Hospital.
Asked if the hospital will be carrying out all clinical procedures as provided by law, rather than what a religion is happy with, he said: “Yes, absolutely”, as is currently the case in the National Maternity Hospital’s current site in Holles Street.
Speaking on Newstalk's On the Record programme, he told host Gavan Reilly that a deal to govern the construction and operation of the €800 million project is "there or thereabouts", but said he continues to have concerns over some of the governance at the project, and the leasing of the land where the hospital is to be constructed to the State.
Peter Boylan, a former master of Holles Street, has suggested the ongoing ownership of the land by a charity which will receive it as a gift from the Religious Sisters of Charity may curtail the hospital's ability to offer abortions, sterilisations, IVF and other procedures contrary to Catholic teaching.
However, Mr Varadkar and the Government dispute this. On the programme, the Tánaiste said his difficulties with the currently proposed arrangements stem from the lack of government-appointed representatives on the board of the company which will run the hospital, and the proposed leasing of the land.
He said his concern on leasing related more to the fact that the land had been mortgaged to build St Vincent’s Private Hospital, and less that the ownership issue could in some way curtail the procedures to be carried out.
“We have an agreement the hospital will be publicly owned, we have an agreement that any obstetric or gynaecological procedure that’s legal in the state, including terminations of pregnancy and IVF, will be legal in the new hospital, we’re comfortable around that,” he said.
He reiterated that the State would be a willing purchaser of the land, if possible. “I think I’m now hearing that either Vincent’s or the Sisters will be willing to sell that land, and if they are, we’re willing to buy.”
Elsewhere, Mr Varadkar indicated the Government may be more permissive in allowing overseas travel than the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has indicated they would prefer. Nphet’s preference is that vaccinated people should travel, but Mr Varadkar said it would be “unfair to say to families and to say to younger people who haven’t had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet because we haven’t had the supply, to say to them that you can’t travel abroad”.
However, he signalled that the Government is unlikely to accept antigen test results for people arriving into the State, and will continue to demand more sensitive PCR tests. “I know it’s more expensive, I know it’s less convenient, but it will pick up more positives”.
On Sunday afternoon the Department of Health confirmed another 288 cases of Covid-19 . There were, it said, 15 patients in ICU related to coronavirus with 49 in hospital because of the virus.
Mr Varadkar told the programme that the target of 40,000 homes to be built per year, which he announced at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis this weekend, was a party rather than a Government target. But he did say that it was “doable” to add 5,000 homes a year to the total being constructed, which he said was likely to be in the region of 20,000 this year.
The Tánaiste also outlined changes to laws covering employee rights and workplace relations which he is planning to introduce in the wake of the pandemic. He said he hopes to institute a statutory sick pay, announced earlier this month, next year, and that around 20 per cent of people in the public sector should have the option of home or remote working – and that unions would shortly be engaged with on that issue.
Saying there is a “golden opportunity to build a new normal”, he said there would be a package around remote working in the next budget, and he would bring in a new law allowing employees the right to request remote working.
Meanwhile, he said he envisages the first contributions to auto-enrolled pensions to be made in 2023, and that the introduction of a living wage would also be addressed in the lifetime of the Government – although he siganlled it may initially be voluntary, or brought in on a phased basis.
“We’re not going to do anything that we believe will lead to people losing their jobs or people seeing their hours cut, that would be totally counterproductive”.