Hitting the 2023 target date for opening the new National Children’s Hospital beside St James’s Hospital in Dublin will be “very challenging”, a senior HSE official has said.
HSE chief strategy and planning officer Dean Sullivan told the Oireachtas health committee there would be “significant challenges” making the target opening date, citing issues “trailed reasonably well in the public domain”, but he declined to commit on when it would open.
Construction on the hospital, last estimated to cost more than €1.7 billion, was shut down for several months due to the Covid-19 pandemic in a standoff between the project’s building contractors, Bam Ireland, and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board over who should pay for the cost of Covid-related work stoppages.
The hospital was scheduled to be finished by the end of 2022 and handed over to the State in early 2023. The project had run over budget and behind schedule even before the pandemic.
Mr Sullivan was speaking as State health officials provided an update to the committee on Sláintecare, the 10-year plan, floated in 2017 and backed by all political parties, to reform the State’s health system and remove private healthcare from public hospitals.
He said Covid-19 has materially affected capacity and activity levels in the health service that it would be a “big ask” to make Sláintecare’s proposed targets of reducing waiting times to 10 weeks for being referred from GP to be seen as an outpatient and 12 weeks after that for treatment.
“We do need to reflect on the realities of Covid. Undoubtedly that has pushed some of the timelines out,” he said.
The Sláintecare plan aims to reduce waiting times in hospitals by moving more healthcare out of the acute healthcare system and back into local communities with 96 community healthcare networks being set up to monitor the healthcare needs of “mini-communities” of 50,000.
Laura Magahy, executive director of Sláintecare, said the Government’s 2021 budget, announced on Tuesday, brings a “huge investment” in the plan amounting to about €1.34 billion.
“It gives permanent funding to initiatives that have sometimes just had part-time funding,” she told TDs and Senators, speaking remotely from outside Leinster House.
The scale of the recruitment required was going to be “a big issue” given the scale of the investment in finding the right people, said Ms Magahy. She warned that the Covid impact on non-Covid services was “something that we all have to live and adapt with over time”.
In response to questions from Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall, Ms Magahy said that establishing three elective-only hospitals under the Sláintecare plan was a key part of reducing healthcare waiting lists and cancellations of procedures.
The availability of existing hospitals and potential of vacated hospitals such as the children’s hospital, if it is vacated, were being looked at as potential sites for these hospitals, she said.
There were also ongoing discussions with the Land Development Agency to see what it had available, she added. Sláintecare hopes to submit a business plan to the Government on the elective-only hospitals by Christmas.
“We are trawling far and wide – our minds are open. It will be dependent on how big these centres will be,” said Ms Magahy.