COMMENT: The big health question that nobody can answer

Accountability has gone out the window over hospital project

Amid all the hype in respect of Omicron, vaccination boosters and other Covid-related issues, there is a health story running and running that would normally be dominating the rolling news agenda.

It relates to the spiralling costs of the new national children's hospital and exactly what they are likely to amount to.

Even the members of Dáil Éireann's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can't seem to get to the bottom of it despite their best efforts.

After a lengthy questioning process of Department of Health officials at the committee's most recent session, the chairman, Deputy Brian Stanley, tried to make some sense of the whole thing.

He said it would appear that 60% of the project is completed with a sum of €873 million drawn down by the end of the year by the contractor.

A total of €1.43 billion was initially budgeted but that has now reached €1.7 billion due to construction cost inflation.

However the project is unlikely to be completed until the end of 2024.

At a rate of 4.5% inflation in construction, which is probably conservative, it will cost approximately €250 million extra due to inflation alone.

On top of that, there is the so-called commercially sensitive matter of 920 claims by the contractor and others made against the State which, it is estimated, will costs a further €500 million.

A significant amount - over 700 - of those claims have been settled to date for an amount over €4 million, leaving various claims for significant amounts at various stages of arbitration.

So, in effect, nobody can say with any certainty at this point how much the project will cost by the time of its completion in three years’ time.

Needless to say, this is a farcical and totally ridiculous situation that makes a mockery of the government's ability to plan and complete major projects of this nature within budget.

And although nobody in a position of authority will admit it, the saga is having an adverse impact on other capital health projects throughout the country, including the much-needed extension to the emergency department of Mayo University Hospital. Mayo TD Alan Dillon, who is a member of PAC, revealed he has been given a timeline of 2026 for the expansion works at the Castlebar facility, a situation he right described as unacceptable.

While it was great to secure funding of €8.4 million in the first place for the work, the delivery is now the big issue.

“Ultimately,” he stated, “I will be reporting back to the Minister for Health. But if the HSE's capital and estates team are not accountable, this falls down. I have an issue with that.”

That's the reality.

The fallout from the national children's hospital debacle is destined to have long-term consequences for health services throughout the country.