Harris told of escalating costs of children's hospital in August

Officials in the Department of Health tried to warn Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe about escalating costs at the national children’s hospital weeks before the budget, newly released documents reveal.

Further controversy has also engulfed Health Minister Simon Harris, whose position was last night described as untenable and who has now been accused of failing to provide full information on the escalating costs of building the national children’s hospital.

Mr Harris last night continued to say he acted “entirely appropriate” and he would work to deliver the hospital.

Documents released by the Department of Health show that Mr Harris was told about a €191m overspend, as well as an additional €200m claim being put in by contractors BAM in August of last year. 

However, responding to a parliamentary question the following month, he maintained that costs were “in line with the expected expenditure profile” and did not inform his Cabinet colleagues until November.

Mr Harris and Mr Donohoe faced a barrage of criticisms in the Dáil yesterday over who knew what and when they were told of the out-of-control hospital costs, which may see the final bill reach €2bn.

In a bid to provide clarification, the department last night released a tranche of emails which were dubbed “extraordinary” and which amount to a further change in the story.

Email correspondence between senior officials shows the Department of Health repeatedly tried to set up a meeting with the Department of Public Expenditure well in advance of the budget and various voicemails had also been left seeking a meeting.

Tracey Conroy, who is on the children’s hospital project and programme steering group, also wrote in November that meetings had been sought multiple times from September.

Turning to Mr Harris’ knowledge of the rising costs, Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly said the minister’s story is “unravelling before our very eyes” and his position is no longer tenable.

“The memo published clearly shows that he was aware of a €391m overrun at the hospital as far back as August, yet he did not inform his Cabinet colleagues until November 9,” she said.

While the emails released last night make it clear that Mr Harris was informed of a €200m claim on August 27, a spokesperson for the minister said the National Pediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB), the organisation tasked with the overall delivery of the new children’s hospital, had assessed this as being “a late submitter which was an attempt to deliberately frustrate the process”.

“It wrote to BAM on August 29 saying this was not acceptable to the board and the final cost relating to this was significantly reduced,” said the spokesperson.

“The following week, the NPHDB advised that, following the September board meeting and contact with the contractor, that they had sought a three-month window to conclude GMP negotiations and that it would be premature to provide a revised project cost update beyond that already briefed in August.

“It remains the position he did not know about the final figures until November 9th. He informed the Taoiseach and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on that date.”

The latest revelations on the children’s hospital came as Mr Harris faced down criticisms from across the Dáil on the Government’s refusal to enter talks with striking nurses without preconditions.

An intervention is expected from the Labour Court this morning despite a significant gap remaining between both sides.

Almost 80,000 patients have already been discommoded during three days of strike with a similar number facing disruption next week when nurses are due to return to the picket line for three consecutive days.

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