The Chief Officer of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board has warned that there are "considerable pressures" on the construction budget for the completion of the National Children's Hospital. 

David Gunning and other representatives from the board are appearing before the Oireachtas Health Committee to give an update on the building of the new hospital.

Mr Gunning said that the budget for the completion of the NCH is currently €1.433bn and the NPHDB is currently "operating within that budgetary scope". However, he said that time impacts costs and the project has suffered delays.

Covid-19 restrictions in March delayed construction by seven weeks, however the project was already behind at that point by six months. Construction was permitted under Covid-19 guidelines to recommence on 18 May. However, BAM did not reopen the site until 13 July, a further seven week delay.

In a statement to RTÉ News, BAM construction company said it is fully committed to delivering the hospital as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The firm said it submitted several work programmes and has updated the Hospital Board every month.

It said BAM has still not received a fully complete, coordinated design for the project and that new amendments are being added all the time.

The statement said that the contract requires BAM to notify the NPHDB of every event which might give rise to an additional cost or a delay.

It said there have been almost 10,000 new drawings since January 2019.

Therefore, the company said, it is "hardly surprising" that there are hundreds of notifications from BAM and its major subcontractors of potential additional costs/delays.

The statement also says that managing the public health guidelines and working restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 situation continues to provide great uncertainty for the project timelines.

BAM said it is putting measures in place to get as many workers on site and productivity as high as possible, but the sooner Covid-19 restrictions are eased the better.

Mr Gunning said that the board is withholding 15% of the fees owed to the construction company, BAM, each month, to ensure the project is completed as quickly as possible. 

He said that BAM has been under-performing on project execution and has been extremely assertive regarding claims.

He said since the commencement of the project there have been hundreds of claims for hundreds of millions of Euro. He said the claims are being made for funding on matters that the board believes fall within its contractual obligations. 

In a written opening statement he said that in April the board filed a High Court action against BAM, which relates to the instruction for the Phase B construction works issued to BAM by the board in January last year.

However, BAM had made a claim disputing the validity of that instruction.

Mr Gunning said that in order to rigorously defend the public purse, the board has been left with no option but to bring the matter to the High Court.

Earlier, the Chief Executive of Children's Health Ireland, which oversees the three children's hospitals in Dublin, told the committee that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown more than ever the need for the new national children's hospital.

In an opening statement, Eilish Hardiman told politicians that more timely and greater access to paediatric services remains its greatest challenge.

Ms Hardiman said that there are several infrastructure and workforce constraints contributing to waiting lists, which are all addressed in the new children's hospital.

She said that CHI has returned its activity levels to an average of 90% of 2019, month-on-month, after activity was reduced due to the pandemic.

Ms Hardiman pointed out that there has been a decrease in emergency department presentations but an increase in mental health presentations since the pandemic began.

She said that the new children's hospital will expand the physical capacity and type of facilities needed to increase activity and reduce waiting times in all paediatric services.

Ms Hardiman told committee members that the challenges created by Covid-19 have enhanced the difficulties for patients and staff in hospitals delivering care to Ireland's sickest children in outdated facilities.

She also said that the board expects building of the second Paediatric Outpatient and Urgent Care Centre based at Tallaght to be completed by September 2021.

Sinn Féin Health spokesperson David Cullinane asked when the National Children's Hospital would be completed.

He asked if the Board could provide an estimate as to when the project would be completed, and if it would be some time this year or next year.

Mr Gunning said the completion date was August 2022.

However, he said that date would not be hit and he said in the absence of a work programme from the contractor BAM they could not provide a completion date.

Mr Gunning said he could not give an answer to that question this year but could provide the answer early next year.

Mr Cullinane said it was "deeply unfortunate" that the board cannot give an estimated timeframe for completion.

Mr Gunning also said that the contractor was not complying with its obligations.

Mr Cullinane asked if this was a breach of the contract. Mr Gunning said you could call it a breach and the remedy was withholding the 15% of the payment owed every month to the company.

Deputy Cullinane described the project as a "complete and absolute mess" and said the Board must appear again before the committee next year with more information.

Responding to a question from Fianna Fáil's John Lahart about how far behind BAM is in relation to the development, Mr Gunning said that before the Covid-19 pandemic, the project was six months behind schedule.

He said there was a seven week delay due to Covid restrictions, and another seven weeks where the contractor failed to return to work.

Co-leader of the Social Democrats Róisín Shorthall asked what the working assumption was in relation to the estimated completion date and the total cost.

Mr Gunning said they are working with the contractor and hope to provide an update to stakeholders early next year.

He said the working assumption is that they are working to the contract timelines until such a time that they are changed.

Deputy Shorthall said the board was "delusional" and was deluding the committee and the taxpayer.

In relation to the cost, Mr Gunning said they were currently operating within the €1.433bn but he said there was considerable pressure on the budget.

He said an updated cost projection could be provided at the same time they would provide stakeholders with an updated schedule in the first quarter of next year.

Deputy Shorthall said it was "highly unsatisfactory" that the Board could not answer any of the committee’s questions and she said they were wasting their time.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime after the committee concluded, Ms Shortall said the project is "like a runaway train" and that the Minister for Health needs to step in.

"We need an assurance that there is proper expertise available to control this issue and ensure it finishes at the earliest possible date", she said. "And to ensure that we keep costs under control."

Deputy Shortall said "there are questions to be answered" by Department of Public expenditure and reform. 

"It's just not acceptable that major and public infrastructure projects like this one are so far over the original estimated cost."