By Cate McCurry, PA
Officials have refused to disclose the updated cost of building the new National Children’s Hospital, as it emerged that the opening date has been pushed back to the second half of 2024.
David Gunning, chief officer of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board (NPHDB), said that even a hypothetical discussion on costs would prejudice the existing contract with construction company BAM.
The hospital, which is being built on the site of St James’s Hospital in Dublin, has been beset by spiralling costs that have escalated to €1.433 billion.
However, with no update on the projected costs, some TDs believe that could rise to €2 billion.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said it is “disappointing” that Department of Health and hospital officials have not provided updated costs and clarity around timeframes for the project.
“It is disappointing that the statements from the department and Mr Gunning is that we won’t be in a position to get answers,” he added.
The contracted completion date for the hospital was August 2022; however the revised target date is now December 2023.
Mr Gunning said the temporary shutdown of the site due to Covid restrictions has delayed work by some 14 months.
He told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health it “more than likely” it will now open to the public in the second half of 2024.
“But that is conditioned by the risks that are currently in the construction sector, in terms of resource availability, and supply of necessary materials,” he said.
While Cabinet approved the more recent cost of €1.433 billion, that sum does not include a number of outstanding costs including construction inflation and hundreds of outstanding claims.
On Wednesday, the committee heard that the number of claims has now grown to 900.
Mr Gunning said he could not provide the number of settled claims; however he later gave the committee updated figures.
“Fifteen of the hundreds of claims have come through conciliation, and, of those, nine have been agreed and the amount involved is about €2.5 million,” he added.
“Six of those we have issued a notice of dissatisfaction and they will go the High Court.”
Mr Cullinane was critical of the lack of information provided to the committee.
“There is a vacuum of accountability and transparency around this project,” he said.
“The estimated costs of the claims will be in the region of €200 million so it’s reasonable for me to ask what is settled and what is the cost of those claims.”
Mr Cullinane later added: “It has been eight months since you last appeared and the update we have got is deeply unsatisfactory.
“This saga of building this hospital goes from one mess to the next.”
Fine Gael senator Martin Conway was also critical of the position taken by the board officials.
“The answers to the questions of Deputy Cullinane are nothing short of disgraceful,” he said.
Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall said it is “really disappointing” that they could not give an update on estimated costs.
“At this stage you are still working on completely unrealistic figure of €1.433 billion,” she said.
Mr Gunning told Ms Shortall there is a moratorium on the dispute processes on all new and current claims.
“I get the impression that you are storing up a lot of costs and trouble for the future, and the issues are not being dealt with now,” Ms Shortall added.
“This project is going to continue to be a runaway train and nothing I have heard today gives me an assurance that is not going to be the case, that costs have been brought under control.”
However, Mr Gunning said there is a “robust” system in place to defend the claims.
Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny asked Mr Gunning whether the board believes BAM is under-performing.
Mr Gunning replied: “We have an interesting relationship with the contractor. Having set off on this contract a number of years ago, the intention was to be collaborative and co-operative. In the middle of all the claims and commercial disputes that didn’t work out as planned.
“We are trying to recover that.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health @davidcullinane has said that there is a vacuum of transparency and accountability in the development of the National Children’s hospital.https://t.co/gPzzbmHpwx pic.twitter.com/jpR3CuuWDg
— Sinn Féin (@sinnfeinireland) July 7, 2021
“We are encouraged by what we are seeing on the site, but there is still a long way to go. We are within a whisker of 40% completion on the site.”
Asked if the board still has confidence in the contractor, Mr Gunning said: “Our level of confidence is growing, we are not there yet.”
Mr Kenny said he believes the cost will rise to €2 billion.
“The biggest sources of cost growth on this project is delay,” Mr Gunning added.
“The primary focus is getting the hospital done as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, it also emerged that the number of children attending hospital with mental health issues has “increased significantly”.
Children’s Health Ireland chief executive Eilish Hardiman said: “We have seen a 58 per cent increase in attendances to our hospitals in the second half of 2020 compared to the period in the previous year.
“We have also seen a 66 per cent increase in children presenting with eating disorders.
“This is a challenging area, it is the post-Covid element of care that we need further engagement.”
Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan said there is a need for immediate emergency measures.
“The situation is now so bad that sufferers of psychological conditions and their parents, particularly in relation to eating disorders, it is virtually impossible to find a place for them,” he added.
“If they have an addiction it is absolutely impossible to find a place for them.”
He added that some patients are being put in prisons as there is nowhere else to accommodate them.