Tuesday 20 August 2019

'I haven't decided to take on Leo but it would be foolish to close doors' - Simon Harris

Health Minister hints at entering the Fine Gael leadership race but insists fixing the HSE is his main focus

Busy: Minister for Health Simon Harris, standing outside Government Buildings, wants HSE managers to show ‘hope and positivity’ when communicating what they do in an effort to encourage people to work in the sector and have faith in it. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Busy: Minister for Health Simon Harris, standing outside Government Buildings, wants HSE managers to show ‘hope and positivity’ when communicating what they do in an effort to encourage people to work in the sector and have faith in it. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Simon Harris is always busy. He's always rushing around somewhere, whether it's to a meeting with HSE officials, a surprise visit to a rural hospital, or a vote in the Dail chamber.

His officials and advisers in the Department of Health find it difficult to keep up with him.

But amid the panic over the Government's rental strategy last week, the Health Minister found time to sit down with the Sunday Independent in his Leinster House office to talk about life, love and the HSE.

He spoke rapidly and confidently, barely inhaling as he rattled off his opinions on the health service and the inner workings of Fine Gael.

He knows his brief inside out and, while he was measured in his response to questions about the Fine Gael leadership race, he had clearly given the topic consideration.

There has been some talk in political circles in recent weeks that he might show up in the starting blocks once the pistol is fired, and Harris didn't rule out the possibility when asked.

"Let's see what happens, when it happens, how it happens," he said.

"I think it would be foolish to shut any doors but I think it would be foolish to kind of bolshily say, 'I'm going to do it', because I haven't decided yet."

When asked about Leo Varadkar's popularity, he said there should not be a "coronation" of one candidate and insisted no one, including the Social Protection Minister, wanted such a scenario to develop.

He dismissed opinion polls which suggested Varadkar would be the eventual winner, and insisted the majority of the Fine Gael parliamentary party was still undecided on who would get their votes.

"Whenever the vacancy arises, which is at a time of the Taoiseach's own choice, in my view, whenever that arises there'll be choice and there will be a number of candidates with strong attributes and strengths and I expect we'll have a very spirited contest, I really do," he said.

He described Varadkar as a "superb politician and colleague", and he also believed Fine Gael members would "look very favourably" on Housing Minister Simon Coveney for taking on a difficult department.

Special praise, however, was reserved for his "mentor", Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who he said has "superb leadership attributes".

He claimed Fine Gael members were "not obsessed" with a leadership contest and suggested Taoiseach Enda Kenny should remain in place for as long as possible due to the unknown dangers that Brexit poses.

"I think the last thing the public want is some sort of premature beauty contest that I suppose at times the media try to goad us into being involved," he said.

"I actually think the stability the Taoiseach brings not just to Government, though he does absolutely bring that, but to the whole issue of Ireland being prepared for Brexit, is very important. You can't underestimate him."

He added there was "no appetite" to oust Kenny through a heave and he believes an "overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party and of the Fine Gael membership around the country" want the Government to "get on with" doing its job and forget about electing a new leader for the time being.

The minister's job is running the health service. It's an unenviable task and last week he was fighting fires following the publication of the HSE's service plan. The report suggested the health service will be treading water next year even though there have been no cutbacks, only major investment, in this year's Budget.

Harris said the health service had been in a "defence crouch" for the past number of years and there was now a serious need for HSE managers to show "hope and positivity" when communicating what they do.

"If they don't, people won't want to work in the Irish health service, or have confidence in the health service," he said. The minister was disappointed that he hadn't significantly reduced the number of people lying on trolleys in cramped hospital wards as they wait for treatment.

However, he still has some ideas he would like to implement which could alleviate the pressures on hospital staff. One initiative, which is being tested in Kilkenny general hospital, sees older people coming to emergency departments screened separately to other patients.

He has also been researching a proposal by the Labour Party's health spokesman Alan Kelly which would involve the HSE paying private hospitals to take in patients on trolleys when wards become overcrowded. Harris said it is "not as straightforward as it sounds" but it is something he is open to doing if needs must.

"When I came to health I was very clear on this, I really value the Irish health service and want to see it significantly invested in but I won't become a prisoner to ideology," he said.

He also believes it is important to lure back to Ireland those doctors and nurses who emigrated during the financial crash. He realises higher salaries would go a long way to bringing them back but said there is also an impression among our emigrants that the HSE recruitment moratorium introduced at the height of recession is still in place.

"The message needs to go out loud and clear that there are jobs here in Ireland and I sometimes worry that that message hasn't fully resonated," he said.

He wouldn't commit to fulfilling a Fine Gael pledge to introducing free GP care for all children under 18 within the next five years but said such a proposal was "desirable".

"When I came to office, I made it very clear that it's the Government's wishes to make GP care available over a five-year term to all children under the age of 18 but it needs to be done in the context of a new GP contract and if we do it in a piecemeal way rather than sit around the table with the GP representative organisation it won't work," he said.

Part of this plan could see the HSE run its own GP clinic or a fund could be established to allow doctors to set up their own practices.

"At the moment, if you decided you want to be a GP you have to be a good GP but you also have to be a good business person because you have to have the ability to set up a small and medium enterprise," Harris said.

"People have to do all the various accounts and everything else. It shouldn't really have to be both."

He doesn't like to talk about his private life but he did recently propose to his long-term girlfriend Caoimhe Wade - and, luckily for the minister, she said yes.

Harris and Wade, a paediatric nurse, were together long before he was appointed as Minister for Health but her insights into the health service are proving to be invaluable to the young politician.

"I don't mind people criticising me, I don't mind them criticising the HSE, the health service, but it just has to be done in the context of, God almighty, people work so hard," he said.

"I see alarm clocks going off in our house very early and people working very long days and in very challenging environments, and I couldn't do the job that Caoimhe does."

She also helps him realise that chasing votes and embroiling himself in the latest political fiasco to grip Leinster House is not always the most important thing in the world.

"When I get home to Greystones from this job, you have a situation whereby you have somebody who can really keep you grounded and also to put things in context," he said.

"Often, when I think something is the most pressing and important issue in the world, you know when you go out of the political bubble that we all tend to get dragged into, it's nice to have somebody there who'd actually say, 'Come on, that's not the most important thing, what about this'.

"She keeps me grounded in that sense, so we're getting married next year."

Sunday Independent

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