The failure to build the National Children’s Hospital would be a “scar” on the Government’s legacy, a parliamentary committee has heard.
Health Minister Simon Harris described the cost overrun of the project as “colossal” but he defended his decision to proceed, despite the spiralling costs, saying “we cannot afford not to build this hospital”.
Mr Harris said: “Not to build this hospital would be a scar on our legacy as an Oireachtas and as a Government.
“We would be yet again neglecting kids that went through the last economic boom promised a hospital that was never built because we had parish pump politics of trying to fit into people’s constituencies on a site we could never get planning permission for.”
Mr Harris made the comments at the Health Committee on Tuesday where he was questioned over the cost overruns of the national project.
The bill for the hospital, which is currently under construction at the St James’s Hospital site in Dublin, is expected to be at least 1.4 billion euro.
It is due to open its doors in 2022.
Mr Harris told TDs and senators that he learned in August that costs were not on track but that it was November before he learned of the exact figure.
“When the overrun became apparent to me it would be an understatement to say that I was very disappointed, very concerned and very frustrated,” he said.
The cost of the hospital is 450 million euro higher than the 983 million euro approved by the Government two years ago.
But it is expected that another 300 million euro could be needed to cover extras before it is completed, which would bring the total cost of the project to 1.7 billion euro.
When he learned of the spiralling costs Mr Harris said he had three options before him: pause, re-tender or proceed.
He defended his decision to proceed with the hospital on the St James’s site.
The Secretary General of the Department of Health told the committee he was “totally unhappy” with the situation, describing it as “invidious”.
Jim Breslin said that if they had attempted to reduce the cost from 1.4 billion euro back to the original budget of 983 million euro they would have had to re-scope the project by a third.
Mr Breslin said they had been advised that they would have had to redesign the project and potentially remove services. He added that it would have caused even more problems.
The situation we're in now is absolutely invidious but we're going to build a hospital that has been required in this country for 30 yearsJim Breslin
“The likelihood is that you would have ended up with an inferior project, an inferior hospital at something approaching the same cost we’re presented with today,” Mr Breslin said.
He added that it may have resulted in the hospital being deferred.
“We would have ended up in a bigger mess, and I absolutely agree this is a mess and I’m totally unhappy with the situation we’re in, but we wouldn’t have built a hospital in that situation.
“The situation we’re in now is absolutely invidious but we’re going to build a hospital that has been required in this country for 30 years.”
An independent external review of the project is underway to examine the cause of the overrun and to identify any changes needed for the delivery of the project.
The minister told the committee he had not asked anyone to resign over the matter because he wanted due diligence to take place and he did not want to “preempt” the outcome.
He said the PWC report, which is due to be completed in March, was going to “warts and all” find out whether there was a better way to proceed, adding that he would act on the findings.
A briefing note by the Department of Health briefing note given to the health committee ahead of Tuesday’s meeting described the decision to go-ahead with project in the face of “major escalation in cost” as being “the least worst option”.