Sunday 25 August 2019

Editorial: 'Patients must not pay the price for FG's fiscal errors'

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe (Niall Carson/PA)
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe (Niall Carson/PA)

Even if the temperature wasn't rising into the high 20s, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe would be in a hot seat.

Setting Brexit and a possible global trade war to one side, Mr Donohoe has also just put his credibility on the line in standing by the new governor of the Central Bank who has been hauled over the coals in his former home.

New Zealand's public service watchdog has found Gabriel Makhlouf "acted unreasonably" in characterising as "hacking" a leak of parts of the 2019 budget from his department's website.

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Time will tell whether Mr Donohoe was wise to press on with the appointment.

Yet troubling though all of these matters may be, Mr Donohoe must deal with some more immediate headaches. The Siptu threat to close down some 58 hospitals for three days next week means the talks to resolve the issue this weekend have the gravest implications.

It is entirely wrong that patients should be held hostage to the discussions. The stoppage this week already resulted in more than 2,000 surgical and scope procedures and outpatient appointments being cancelled. A three-day shutdown of hospitals would be unprecedented. There is no telling what toll it would take on the sick and those waiting for treatment. The system is still reeling from the nurses' strike. Waiting lists would be thrown into utter chaos if an already over-stretched system had to absorb a 72-hour closure, and thousands more cancellations.

But Siptu feels it has come to the end of the road. However, brinkmanship that involves brokering with the suffering of others is morally reprehensible. Even more so when the machinery of industrial relations and mediation is to hand.

But the truth is the State can hardly escape blame for the breakdown. The union went through the proper channels to have its claim assessed and the HSE accepted it. The standoff needs to be seen in a context where for the first three months of this year alone, the HSE was €82m over budget.

Mr Donohoe is also facing multiple competing pay claims while trying to hold the line on one collective agreement in the public service.

It is estimated the Siptu demand could be settled for around €20m.

This is where Mr Donohoe's aforementioned credibility comes back into the picture.

Fine Gael's blue riband as the champion of fiscal rectitude has been shredded by the blow-out of hundreds of millions on the National Children's Hospital.

The eye-watering cost of the National Broadband Plan has also thrown doubts over its competence on delivering projects on time and on budget. None of this reflects well on the party that once put a premium on prudence.

Management of the public purse matters, as our recent history has shown. Management of the public's health matters even more.

Neither Siptu, nor the Government, will lightly be forgiven if a tsunami of disruption is unleashed on the health service through a three-day strike.

Irish Independent

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