ELAINE LOUGHLIN: How much taxpayers’ money is it acceptable to waste?

If we are to believe the narrative, Health Minister Simon Harris saw it as prudent to wait until after the budget to inform the Finance Minister of a massive bill related to the children’s hospital which was coming down the tracks, writes Elaine Loughlin, Political Correspondent

How much is too much? €100m? Maybe €200m?

Or maybe we have to wait until the IMF returns to town before our Government heeds the public’s concern and consternation over the gross overspending that has happened and continues to spiral at the National Children’s Hospital?

In discussing the overrun, we need to talk about Simon Harris who has caught a severe case of blind millionitis.

Just seven short months ago the Health Minister looked out on a jubilant crowd in Dublin Castle, where one of the posters read “I fancy Simon”.

Now the homemade signs have been replaced with nursing picket placards and Mr Harris clings to office trying to get out of a €450m black hole.

The hospital is currently a large crater in the ground, but already there are mutterings that the end cost may exceed €2bn — more than triple the €650m initial cost.

How loud do members of the general public have to scream? What is the level of frustration that must be mustered before the alarm bell in Government is signalled?

I don’t know about you, but I am livid.

Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

But the affliction of billion blindness has not just hit the Health Minister, it seems that the contagion spread across the Government a long time ago.

Ministers have a tendency of casually referring to millions and billions like they are buying penny sweets.

But by any standard €391m — the amount that was flagged as the approximate overspend at the Children’s Hospital as far back as

August — is a colossal amount.

With €391m Simon Harris could have paid the yearly salaries of 13,417 nurses; he could have provided 1,200 new hospital beds to ease the trolley crisis and he would have had plenty of change left for gobstoppers after building a promised 20-bed cystic fibrosis unit in Beaumont Hospital which has a price tag of €11m.

If Mr Harris didn’t want to spend the money in his own Department, he could have given it to Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy for the purchase of 1,600 brand new three-bed semi-detached homes.

But yet, this figure, which eventually jumped to €450m, was not divulged to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar or Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe for three months.

In a statement released yesterday morning, Mr Varadkar said the €100m that will have to be diverted away from other projects this year alone to cover the cost of the hospital overspend is “manageable”.

Manageable?

Projects such as new Cath Lab in Waterford, a new MRI scanner in the Midlands Regional Hospital, the national radiation oncology programme in Cork and upgrades to wards in Cavan hospital are now likely to be at the very least delayed as a direct consequence.

Will patients and staff denied these upgrades in facilities and services see the €100m as “manageable”?

Again the question must be asked, how much taxpayers’ money is it acceptable to squander before it actually becomes an issue for Government?

Mr Varadkar and his Ministers seem to think that a hundred million here and another hundred million there is not a big deal, but millions have amounted to more than a billion of an overspend.

The buzzword of Budget 2019 was “prudence” with Mr Donohoe citing the need for a balanced budget in the weeks leading up to October 9.

If we are to believe the narrative, Mr Harris saw it as prudent to wait until after the budget to inform the Finance Minister of a massive bill related to the children’s hospital which was coming down the tracks.

As Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath put it in the Dáil this week: “I cannot envisage a scenario in any company in this country where a senior manager in charge of a capital project, on becoming aware of a massive overrun, would not inform the finance director of the company.

“Does anyone talk to anyone in this Government?” he asked.

Clearly not when it comes to overspending one of the largest ever capital projects undertaken in this State.

In his statement yesterday, the Taoiseach continued by saying that the impact on Budget 2019 is a “red herring”.

Reiterating full confidence in Mr Harris, he said that if the Health Minister had informed him any earlier “I would have instructed him to do exactly what he did — explore all options to reduce the scale of it and to establish a precise and final figure”.

On Thursday night the Department of Health released a tranche of emails

in black and white

showing that Mr Harris was told about a €191m overspend in August and also about a separate €200m that main contractor BAM claimed it was owed.

Shortly afterwards, Mr Harris, in defending the decision to sit on the information for three months, said it is not his responsibility to act as a “messenger boy” to the Finance Minister.

Messenger boy?

This was not some bit of idle gossip or a simple piece of inconsequential information, it was a potential €391m overspend which is now having a direct impact on the roll-out of much-needed projects.

The released emails also show the multiple attempts made by Department of Health staff to arrange a meeting with officials in Paschal Donohoe’s office about the spiralling costs as far back as September.

One official acknowledged that staff in the Department of Public Expenditure had been “occupied with Estimates work recently” but emphasised the need for a meeting, mentioning that they wanted to brief “on the current position and potential cost issues emerging relating to the GMP (Guaranteed maximum price)”.

By November, Tracey Conroy who is also on the children’s hospital project and programme steering group, made it clear that officials had been seeking to meet since September 27 and asked that a time be arranged that week before Mr Harris made a submission to the Government.

How did multiple emails, voicemails and calls from September onwards not spark — at the very least — a passing interest from those in the Department of Public Expenditure?

Why did emails with the subject lines “new children’s hospital capital cost” and “update note for the Minister on the NCH construction project” not signal alarm?

Why did Paschal Donohoe, as the Government’s money manager, not even casually inquire about the State’s most significant capital project which had already been dogged by controversy and delay?

As the revelations continue to seep out, the public is now left with many questions that the Government should have been seeking answers to a long time ago.


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