'Fake' news, 'scaremongering' or attempt to hide spiralling children's hospital costs crisis?

'Fake' news, 'scaremongering' or attempt to hide spiralling children's hospital costs crisis?
.Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris, during the launch of the government's publication of the HSE Capital Plans in the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Rochestown Avenue, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie.

"Fake" news and "scaremongering" - or an attempt to hide the true impact of the spiralling children's hospital costs crisis in plain sight after months of repeated delays.

The Government and opposition had vastly different interpretations of the HSE's long-awaited multi-billion-euro 2019 capital plan when it was finally published today.

And, for once, there are legitimate reasons with the usual cynical political pageantry replaced with legitimate questions about the plan's headline-grabbing details which have yet to be properly answered.

At the launch at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Health Minister Simon Harris and HSE director general Paul Reid put on their best poker faces and explained all was well with the world.

Yes, the capital plan - which outlines health building projects for the year - has been delayed for nine months and is being published just 37 days before budget 2020 kicks off the entire process again.

But this, Mr Harris said, is in part because it is a three-year plan sought by the opposition instead of the usual one year document.

Yes, the HSE did need a €200m Department of Public Expenditure bailout in July to even afford any of the initiatives. But, Mr Reid argued, the money means €642m is available for projects this year - up from €441m last year - and €2.1bn for 250 projects between now and December 2021.

Yes, there have been repeated concerns the surging children's hospital costs crisis revealed earlier this year means other projects will have to take the hit.

Mr Varadkar said claims they would be cancelled are "scaremongering" and "fake" news as there is "plenty of money for projects around the country".

And, yes, the repeatedly delayed plan was finally nudged into public view just as everyone's attention is on Brexit, Boris Johnson and US vice-president Mike Pence's visit, cutting questions to a bare minimum, but ... well, they didn't give a reason for that one, funnily enough.

On paper it all sounds good, with the top line of more money for more health infrastructure projects to help vulnerable people over the next three years as part of a joined-up plan.

Only, politics and health are never just on paper, with the opposition already raising legitimate questions over the timing, actual deadlines for projects being completed and why the 2019 plan is now suddenly a 2019-2021 plan - potentially masking any impact of the increase in the children's hospital costs by hiding specific project delays.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner after the report was published, Fianna Fáil's finance spokesperson Michael McGrath was scathing in his response, saying bluntly officials made "no references" to the three-year plan or gave it as a reason for the delay during a July Dáil committee meeting on the issue.

Describing the plan itself as a "make-it-up-as-you-go-along document", he said there are no exact deadlines for individual projects allowing scope for them to be pushed out and delayed.

When asked about Mr Varadkar's "scaremongering" claim he said: "The Taoiseach is misleading people if he is saying the catastrophic children's hospital overrun hasn't had an impact, it's just simply not true to say it."

Sinn Féin health spokesperson Louise O'Reilly was equally questioning of the document, saying projects are being tagged in the plan as being at vague "design" and "planning" phases to hide any delays, and questioned why the plan's intention to create 480 new beds by 2021 is lower than the apparent 260 new beds a year plan in the previous Project Ireland 2040 document.

And Labour counterpart Alan Kelly was just as critical, branding the nine-month delay in the plan's publication "a joke" and asking why a report officials said would be published by mid-July is being released just as the focus is on other matters.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Harris were at pains to highlight the benefits of the capital plan on Monday and to finally silence any concerns over any wider impact the overruns at the children's hospital might have.

Until all of the listed projects are built, it will be difficult to shake the suspicion that true impact of the hikes in children's hospital budget is still being hidden in a lack of clear deadlines for other projects, stretching out plans from one to three years and publishing documents when attention is elsewhere in the hope legitimate questions won't be asked.

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