Sunday 24 February 2019

Editorial: '€2bn for children's hospital will wound health services'

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Frank McGrath
Editorial

Editorial

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe prides himself as being prudent. It is an admirable thing for the Government to bend the knee at the altar of frugality. Yet the evidence of its adoption of a policy of "do as I say, not as I do" is mounting.

The mantra of "a penny saved is a penny earned" seems only to be applied in selective circumstances, judging by what we heard at the Public Accounts Committee yesterday.

For it now appears the final cost of the new National Children's Hospital - already deemed the most expensive in history - could exceed €2bn.

It was not just Labour's health spokesperson Alan Kelly's mind which was "boggled" at the spiralling costs; or the deafening silence in getting a satisfactory explanation.

As recently as September last year, the cost of the project was expected to be €983m.

The latest figures make for very sober reading in a week when tens of thousands of patients had their procedures cancelled because of a nurses' strike in pursuit of better income and conditions.

As of now there is no mediation and matters are certain to escalate and the public will suffer. The Government's case for holding the line on public pay is only as strong as the example it sets.

If budgets can soar to stratospheric levels without anyone being held responsible, if the only consequence is a poorer service to patients, small wonder morale is through the floor among front-line health workers.

In any other organisation there would be ruthless cost benefit analysis on the budget blow-out at the hospital.

The Health Department in classic "Sir Humphrey-style" prefers to call their study "a scenario sensitivity analysis".

This, we learned from its secretary general Jim Breslin, would eventually identify potential further cost increases.

Fianna Fáil TD Shane Cassells asked Mr Breslin whether Health Minister Simon Harris had misled the Dáil on September 18 when quizzed by Barry Cowen on the cost of the project. He was assured it was coming in on target. Or as Mr Breslin put it: "They were on profile." He further explained he did not at the time have an agreed guaranteed maximum price.

But in layman's terms if being "on profile" is sufficiently elastic to accommodate an €1bn over-run, one fears to think what being "off-profile" might lead to.

Philosophers can argue the toss about it being beyond finite minds to validate infinite things. Senior civil servants, auditors and ministers have no such luxury. They are obliged to be keenly aware resources are far from unlimited. It ought not require a "scenario sensitivity analysis" to recognise that if you spend more than you have, someone down the line feels severe pain.

Irish Independent

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