October 19, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Sad, sick saga of the world’s most expensive hospital

When the idea of a new national children’s hospital was first mooted I was the father of young girls. I sincerely hoped our family would never need its services but I was pleased, nevertheless, to learn of the plan, since the hospitals that catered for children were outdated and difficult to reach.

My daughters have children of their own now, two of them in their late teens, and still the hospital has not been built.

Two of those outdated  hospitals continue to function in Dublin, providing a wonderful service against the odds. The third, in Harcourt Street, closed its doors in 1998, and transferred some of its services to Tallaght.

If the opportunity had been taken then  to base the entire National Children’s Hospital in Tallaght it would be up and running years ago, in a location easily reached by road and  public transport.

Instead, our planners and politicians continued to argue over the perfect site for their grandiose project before choosing a location beside the existing St James’s Hospital. It is more central (for Dublin) than Tallaght, but that creates its own problems since traffic in the area can be very slow moving. It is well-served by public transport – but that’s not much use to the parents of very sick children who are unlikely to be waiting for a tram  or a train to get them to hospital.

In any case, the location has no practical relevance since the hospital  has not been built. Latest projections say it will not open until 2024. Since no other forecasts have proved correct, I have no confidence that this date will be achieved.

One thing I feel entirely confident about is that the final cost will be even greater than the €2 billion now suggested. In fact I’m pretty sure the real costs already exceed €2 billion since millions of euro have been wasted on consultants’ reports and draft planning applications which are not included in the reckoning.

Most histories of this sorry saga say it began in 1993 when a report from the Royal College of Physicians called for a new hospital.

But a decade before that there was talk of rebuilding and extending Crumlin Children’s Hospital. When that proved impractical, a developer offered land, free of charge, for a purpose-built replacement somewhere off the Nass dual carriageway. He even offered to build the structure without charge so long as he was allowed to put up a private hospital on the same site.

This offer was rejected as in some way unethical and, since then, at least three other offers of free sites have been rejected – one at Swords, on the northside of Dublin, one at Sillogue, near Ballymun, and a third at the old Phoenix Park racecourse.

Having rejected the opportunity for a free hospital –  a free building, at least – politicians across several governments embarked on a process which will give us one of the most expensive hospitals in the world.

Let me put some context on this. In 1995 Albert Reynolds, then Taoiseach, came back from Brussels with €8 billion for regional development. It was the largest single sum Ireland had ever seen and it revolutionised the country. It built roads, improved telecommunications and financed a huge amount of new infrastructure. It paid for the birth of the Celtic Tiger.

Albert was a shrewd businessman who knew the value of every cent.  His successors, who do not, have contrived to spend a quarter of that magnificent sum on just one hospital – and the final bill isn’t in yet. When work began on the St James’s site, that bill was put at some €900 million, so it has more than doubled in five years.

The Chief Executive of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, David Gunning, told an Oireachtas committee this week that 700 claims by contractors for unbudgeted costs  have been lodged, amounting to €300 million.

Mr Gunning said this was an inordinately high number of claims but they were being “robustly defended”. That is not encouraging. If new legal costs are to be added to all the other expenses we may yet come to regard €2 billion as a bargain basement figure.

The bill keeps rising, the timeline keeps expanding, and the same gallant, outdated hospitals keep protecting our children.

Thankfully, I never needed a children’s hospital for my daughters. I hope they can say the same about their children for I have no faith that the new hospital will be there to serve them.


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