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Clare TD Michael Harty: 'I took a different view from my rural colleagues on the drink driving laws'

“The day of just two will do is no longer acceptable,” Dr Michael Harty, chair of the Oireachtas Health Committee, told TheJournal.ie.

Image: Shutterstock/rawf8

INDEPENDENT TD DR Michael Harty has said that he disagrees with his Independent TD colleagues on the new, stricter penalties for drink driving legislation, saying that it was an “important” aspect of road safety.

Independent TDs Mattie McGrath, Michael and Danny Healy-Rae have been vocal in their opposition to the changes, championed by Minister for Transport and Independent TD Shane Ross, which sees a more strict penalty for those caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, even if that’s a small amount of alcohol.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie about a wide range of healthcare issues, Harty explained that he differed from his rural colleagues on Ireland’s newly-changed drink driving laws when viewing it from a medical perspective.

“I took a different view from my rural Independent colleagues on the Road Traffic Amendment Bill,” Co Clare GP Harty said, “which underpinned the change in penalty rather the change in level of alcohol to be illegal.”

I was looking at it from a GP’s perspective as a piece of road safety legislation. I think that it is important that people realise that they can’t drink and drive. The day of just two will do is no longer acceptable.

The new regulations remove a concession in previous legislation by which some drink drivers received penalty points instead of being disqualified.

It now means that all drink drivers, without exception, will receive a driving disqualification for three months if they are caught above the legal limit.

“Taking a chance by drinking and driving is really taking a chance, so now people understand that if they take a chance and they’re found to be over the legal limit, rather than just issued with a fine of a couple of hundred euros and a few penalty points, they’re now faced with a much more serious penalty of losing your licence for three months.”

90417167_90417167 (Pictured R-t-L): Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath, Dr Michael Harty and advisors arrive for government talks in May 2016. Source: Leah Farrell

Rural TDs had argued that the legislation was too harsh, and could mean that someone gets their drivers’ licence revoked if driving the morning after a bout of drinking.

“In relation to the following morning,” Harty says, “do you want to be on the road the following morning with people who are still over the legal limit?”

They are still liable to cause an accident, libel to cause an injury to themselves, or to other road users. 

“It seems harsh, but nevertheless, they are still over the legal limit,” he says.

He said that the proposals to allow exemptions for those who were caught over the legal limit and have had their licence revoked to allow them to drive to work was an “interesting proposal”. 

“If it can be proven that it’s going to seriously impinge on your ability to function in society, perhaps being allowed to drive in a curfew period should be an option,” Harty says, though he doesn’t know “how it would work out practically”.

In a separate part of the interview, Harty said that there was a concern among some rural GPs that they could be targeted by anti-abortion protesters if they are the only one in an area providing those services to the public.

He also said that the 1 January date set by Health Minister Simon Harris, by which abortion services should be made available in Ireland, was “very ambitious” and has led to the “sporadic availability” of abortion services around the country. 

The National Children’s Hospital 

Official Sod-Turning ceremony for new Dublin Airport runway Minister for Transport and Independent TD Shane Ross next to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

This week, the Rural Independents Group, including Harty, put forward a Private Memebers’ Bill on the National Children’s Hospital, calling for construction to be  suspended immediately at the St James’ site.

The motion was rejected by the Dáil; Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath released a statement criticising the Fianna Fáil and Labour’s “absolutely bewildering decision to proceed at this disastrous site”.

But Michael Harty, who is also the chair of the Oireachtas Health Committee, said that it would be “very difficult” to suspend construction at the site.

“It would be very difficult to extract the current contractors from the project, and it could end up in protracted legal difficulties which would lead to further delay of the completion of hospital.”

The project, which has been hounded by problems since its inception, has been disrupted recently by spiralling costs of completing the hospital; jumping from over €900 million to almost €2 billion. An assessment of how costs increased has been set up by the government – but the cost of carrying out this assessment has also increased (from €450,000 to €600,000).

The capital project has also been caught up in a debate over whether St James’s is the appropriate site for the new national hospital. It was originally meant to be located on a site next to the Mater Hospital in Phibsborough, north Dublin. But after An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission, it was decided that it would be co-located at a site next to St James’s Hospital. Approximately €40 million was spent on moving the plans to a new site. 

2318 New children hospital_90562817 Construction on the building site as work begins on the new children's hospital near the St. James’s campus. Source: Leah Farrell

Harty believes that the hospital should have been built at Connolly Hospital site Blanchardstown, even though it was more important to be co-located next to a maternity hospital rather than a teaching hospital.

The greenfield site in Blanchardstown would have been a better site than St James’s… certainly, if one was to relive or go back, it would have been more appropriate.

The Blanchardstown site is said to have been more appropriate because of the room available to expand the hospital; critics of the St James’ site say that within 10 or 20 years, that the current Children’s Hospital plans won’t meet the demands of the population.

It’s a very interesting issue because, many paediatric specialists say that if we enter a new way of healthcare, where we look after more and more people in the community, internationally the length of stay for children now is reducing.
So if change paediatric care to the peripheral hospitals such as Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and just have the new paediatric hospital dealing with complex and urgent care, the bed requirement actually reduces, provided we change our model of care.

He adds that because of technology advances, the bed requirement may be sufficient but that the ancillary add-ons that the hospital will need and ability to expand “won’t be there, or will be very tight”. 

CervicalCheck, and trolley counts

11/5/2018 Cervical Cancer Controversies Varadkar and Simon Harris speak after a Cabinet meeting about CervicalCheck programme (May 2018). Source: Sam Boal

In February, after Sinn Féin tabled a motion of no confidence in Simon Harris as Health Minister, Harty voted against Harris.

This came after a number of issues facing the government, all involving the healthcare sector, including the nurses’ strike, the cost of the National Children’s Hospital, and issues around the CervicalCheck programme.

“The current waiting period of 6 months or more is unacceptable,” Harty says on this, “I’ve had patients that had smears done in August who haven’t had their results back yet.

If the offer of out-of-cycle smears was to reassure women, it certainly hasn’t done that… and has undermined people’s confidence in the CervicalCheck programme. 

Although he had previously intended to abstain, Harty changed his mind after hearing that the additional funding needed to prop up the increasingly expensive National Children’s Hospital would mean that a 60-bed modular unit for University Hospital Limerick would be delayed.

“This is one failed commitment I cannot accept,” he said at the time, stating that Harris appeared in front of his health committee and gave a number of statements to the Dáil where he pledged that the hospital unit “would be delivered on and delivered on by 2019″.

“Limerick hospital has the highest trolley count in country,” Harty says. “This week there were 58 people on trolleys or in wards. I was wavering, but funding was not guaranteed for the project… that’s a breach of trust and reigning on commitment given, so it’s very hard to have confidence in that Minister after that.”

Since drawing attention to the issue, Minister has said that money will be made available.

When the HSE plan is published, according to Harty, Simon Harris has committed that funding for the unit will be made available. But after the modular unit is built, there is a third element of construction where staff are trained for the new unit, and “that money hasn’t been made available”. 

“So I think the 60-bed modular unit won’t be ready until 2021 at the earliest,” he says.

“And this is only an interim measure: a 96-bed permanent unit in was meant to be delivered by 2021, according to the Programme for Government. If interim unit isn’t made until 2021, when will the permanent unit be delivered?”

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