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'He's being unfairly targeted' - Taoiseach and Tanaiste back Harris as he faces calls to resign over children's hospital saga

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Discussions: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Damien Eagers

Discussions: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Damien Eagers

Sinn Féin said last night that Mr Harris’s position is completely untenable. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Sinn Féin said last night that Mr Harris’s position is completely untenable. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

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Discussions: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Damien Eagers

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he 'gets' why people are annoyed about the overspend on the National Children's Hospital - but insists it's not Health Minister Simon Harris's fault.

Mr Varadkar has left scope for his minister to offer a public apology over the debacle while simultaneously arguing the controversy shouldn't cause the Government to collapse.

Speaking in Belfast today, the Taoiseach said Mr Harris would address the Dáil on the issue next week.

"I don't want to pre-empt what he will say, that's up to him," he said.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged that taxpayers are rightly annoyed that the project is costing €450m more than planned.

"I feel that. I get that. And I understand that," he said.

But he asked that people "judge us in the round" when it comes to management of the national finances.

The Taoiseach described his embattled Cabinet colleague as somebody "who has delivered" in the Department of Health, citing the abortion referendum and Public Health Alcohol Bill as two examples.

"I have total confidence in him," he said.

Earlier, Tanaiste Simon Coveney gave staunch backing to the under-fire Health Minister and claimed he was being unfairly targeted over the €1.4bn National Children's Hospital (NCH) controversy.

Mr Coveney insisted that Mr Harris has the "toughest job in Government" and had acted properly and appropriately over the €400m-plus cost-overruns with the long-delayed Dublin project.

The NCH now has a €6,500 per square metre cost - more than 10pc higher than comparable health projects worldwide.

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He also dismissed criticisms that Mr Harris did not act promptly last year once the ballooning costs became apparent within the Department of Health and Health Service Executive.

"I have absolute confidence in Simon Harris. I know Simon Harris very well, he is a hugely competent minister, communicator and very talented politician," Mr Coveney said.

"He probably has the toughest job in Government."

"Managing the health service is not easy as is clearly evident at the moment from the multiple challenges that he faces."

The Cork TD also dismissed suggestions Fine Gael will face a voter backlash next May for the Local and European elections over the NCH controversy and the nurses strike.

"I hope not - I think when people see this hospital finished they will see why it is as expensive as it is."

"It will be a world-class facility and it will transform paediatric care in Ireland and the experience for both families and children."

"I think we owe that to children."

"I think when people get the PWC report they will see the reason why the increased costs happened."

He said it was important to understand that the costs problem involved initial estimates and not a construction costs overrun.

"This was not a costs overrun - it was an estimate of costs that was wrong at the start."

Memos released by the Department of Health last night showed that Mr Harris was informed on August 27 of a potential overrun of €391m.

However, Mr Harris did not inform Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe of the issue for two and a half months. This was after the negotiations for Budget 2019 were complete.

He has said the August figures were only estimates and he wanted the full facts before raising the issue.

Sinn Féin has called on the Taoiseach to sack the minister, while Fianna Fáil has described the situation as an “omnishambles”.

Micheál Martin’s party are propping up the minority Government through a confidence and supply deal that means they cannot call for Mr Harris to go without risking a general election.

In a statement this morning, Mr Varadkar said: “If Minister Harris had informed me any earlier of the emerging overrun in the cost of building the new NCH, 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.

"The impact on Budget 2019 is a red herring. It would have had no impact on the Budget Day package.”

The Taoiseach argues that capital infrastructure spending profiles are now multi-annual and were announced in February 2018, not on Budget Day.

“The increase in the capital budget for 2019 was €1.5 billion. €100m will have to be taken from this for the NCH overrun. It’s manageable.

“I have total confidence in Minister Harris,” he concluded.

The Minister has said it was November 9 before the total construction cost was confirmed as €1.4bn, which is €450m above the original price.

Mr Leo Varadkar learned of the overrun on the same day as he happened to be visiting the Department of Health when news of the revised figures came in.

The August 27 memo showed Mr Harris was told the hospital would cost an additional €191m.

The memo also showed that an extra €200m was sought by the builders. However, it shows the national paediatric development board assessed this €200m as being “a late submittal which was an attempt to deliberately frustrate the process”.

It wrote to BAM on August 29 saying this figure was not acceptable to the board and the final cost relating to this was significantly reduced.

Around €60m of this €200m was later included in the final price. The board sought a three-month window to conclude the negotiations and said it would be premature to provide a revised project cost update beyond that already briefed in August.

A spokeswoman for the minister said last night: “From then on, the minister was being briefed on detailed efforts to establish the extent of the cost increase, to consider options for reducing it and to work through all contingencies. 

“On August 27, 2018, the minister was advised the construction budget was trending over budget – estimated to be €191m. It remains the position he did not know about the final figures until November.

“The work undertaken from August on was essential to enabling the minister to bring to Cabinet a thorough assessment and a clear recommendation.”

Micheál Martin speaking on Kildare FM this morning that the minister should "correct the Dáil and he needs to apologise to the Dáil".

He said it was “extraordinary” that the minister would not have told anybody about the overspend until November.

He said the onus was now on Fine Gael needs to reflect on the issues raised.

PAC chairman and Fianna Fáil TD Seán Flemming however told Newstalk Breakfast that he believed Mr Harris should stand aside.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has ramped up pressure on Fianna Fáil in relation to the controversy surrounding the cost.

In a letter to Micheál Martin, Ms McDonald said the position of Health Minister Simon Harris is “untenable”.

She said Brexit should not be used as a “catch-all” excuse to “tolerate and enable bad government”.

“I invite you to make clear whether you have confidence in Minister Simon Harris and whether you will move or  a support a confidence in the Minister for Health,” she wrote.

Previously Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said that if Brexit was not an issue the current government would be gone.


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