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We can’t afford to spend €1bn a year on single-use PPE in a massive fiscal crisis

Michael McDowell: Enormous hole in public finances cannot simply be wished away by borrowing billions

While it may be trite to point out that it was far easier politically to get us into lockdown than it will be to get out of it, that does not mean that the economic, health and social damage being done by lockdown is sustainable or that ending lockdown as quickly as possible is not a matter of grave urgency.

Speculating about whether the Swedes are right or wrong in their response to Covid-19 is of limited use. Collectively, we supported the Government’s decision as to the steps needed to prevent a critical care tsunami overwhelming our hospital system. It seems to have worked. So far. But we must learn – not only from the Swedes’ experience – but from other states in Europe as to what, for example, the risk to teachers is in reopening schools.

The enormous hole in the public finances cannot simply be wished away by borrowing many billions

But the price is not simply colossal in money terms; there will be increased mortality in non-Covid illnesses due to the suspension of wide swathes of our health services. The enormous hole in the public finances cannot simply be wished away by borrowing many billions.

There will be fewer resources for health, welfare, home building, energy infrastructure, public transport provision, and the arts. It is easy to talk about rebooting our economy with stimulus programmes; it is unfortunately very difficult for our organs of government to deliver on major programmes.


Business group Ibec is proposing that the underground Dart interconnector between Connolly and Heuston stations be fast-tracked to help reboot the economy. Well, that will entail a complete redesign of the southern end of the proposed Metrolink so that the two services can share a station hub at St Stephen’s Green. We can’t build two stations there. Will that happen?

The startling HSE suggestion that we should budget for an annual cost of €1 billion for Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) on the basis that none of it is decontaminated and recycled but all incinerated or sent to landfill suggests that some people are detached from reality.

I am not going to engage in Trump-like advocacy of Lysol or daylight, but someone in the HSE or in National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) or in the Department of Health should work out now, as a matter of great urgency, how and to what extent decontamination and re-use of PPE can be implemented. We can’t afford to spend €1 billion a year on single-use PPE.

That PPE figure is larger than the entire annual budget of Dublin City Council.

Relief subvention

If there is now to be a major exchequer commercial rates relief subvention to local authorities, including Dublin City Council, we can only hope that economic realities dawn on the management of such bodies.

We learned this week that Dublin City Council proposes to spend €74 million on a new “operations depot” for outdoor equipment and staff to be located in Ballymun. This depot was approved in 2018 on the basis that it would cost €54 million. The extra €20 million was explained by the council’s executive as following a “difficult tender process”.

The idea was to lease the council’s network of local depots to Approved Housing Bodies for the building of about 750 social homes. These bodies, presumably funded by the exchequer, would pay rent to the council for the sites and build the 750 homes.

The largest housing authority in the State is responding to the national housing crisis by building itself a centralised outdoor operations depot

But that would bring in only €40 million. So the council’s executives want to borrow €34 million to finance the new Ballymun depot.

And who will lend them the €34 million? The State’s Housing Finance Agency, of course. And our elected councillors approved the proposal on Monday evening. Does this give you a sinking feeling?

Dublin City Council, the largest housing authority in the State, is responding to the national housing crisis by building itself a centralised outdoor operations depot on the northern fringe of its functional area at a cost of €74 million. Other agencies will develop the vacated depots. And yet other agencies will pay for it all.

Social homes

If each of the new social homes costs €200,000 to build, you can add the €74 million site costs to €150 million construction costs. And nobody in Wood Quay takes responsibility for delivering on any of this except for the new depot conveniently located at Ballymun. I haven’t mentioned the inevitable relocation money and travel time that will be paid to staff at the new operations depot.

Is this how we intend to proceed in the brave new post-Covid world?

By the way, the council, as far as we know, is still proposing to spend €20 million or €30 million (or whatever the figure will be after the usual “difficult tendering process”) on a white water rafting facility near the Custom House, home of its parent department.

Will none of the elected councillors even table a motion to rescind that daft idea claimed by their executives to be necessary to save money sending firefighters to a similar facility in Wales? Before the tendering process leads to a signed contract, will no one cry a halt?

We are only, after all, in the middle of a massive fiscal crisis.