Ministerhasnofear of‘poisonedchalice’ healthportfolio
SIMON Harris was 20 years old when he began to contact reporters at the Bray People and Wicklow People, as his campaign for Greystones Town Council gathered steam and he was advocating for autism organisation the Triple A Alliance.
Within a decade, and just a few months shy of his 30th birthday, he has been appointed Minister for Health, the ‘poisoned chalice’ of cabinet portfolios.
‘It’s been a very peculiar journey. A lot of people do get involved in politics young. I was elected to the Dáil when I was 24. I might have been the 16th or 17th youngest ever. The difference is a lot of them would have come to politics through family, which isn’t a judgement call, but a lot would have taken over from a relative and I didn’t have that connection.
‘I got involved through the issue; setting up the Triple A Alliance and working with about 200 families in Wicklow living with autism. Before I knew it, I was agitating and campaigning.’
He was surprised to find himself being asked to become Minister for Health.
‘I was shocked. I had read and heard I had a chance of being in the cabinet. There was a sense that I might be offered something, but I was surprised with health because of the scale of it.’
While he received hundreds of messages wishing him well. some were almost commiserating. Does the health portfolio live up to its reputation? And what can Harris bring to it that two doctors couldn’t?
‘I don’t think it is a poisoned chalice. If you strip it back a bit, why do people get involved in politics? Presumably everyone, regardless of what party they’re in or none, wants to make a positive impact. It’s hard to think of a department in government where the decisions you make, the investments you make, and the policies that you pursue have the potential to make a positive impact on people’s lives.’
A lot has been made of the Greystones man’s age, particularly on social media, since the cabinet was announced.
‘We have a very young population and they have their right to have a voice in government. Nobody would ever say “look at the age of Minister X” in terms of reference to someone being of an older age. That would be ageist.’
With his 30th birthday falling in October, Harris may finally be able to dispose of the ‘wunderkind’ mantle. While he has probably made sacrifices to get where he is, in terms of privacy, for example, that doesn’t bother him.
‘A lot of Irish people my age had to give up a lot more than I did. They had to leave this country to get a job and couldn’t be with their family and friends.’
His parents May and Bart, siblings Adam and Gemma, partner Caoimhe, and circle of friends, keep him grounded, said Simon.
Last week, leading oncologist Professor John Crown made an appeal for 50c to be tagged on to the price of cigarettes to fund a particular medication for cancer.
‘I agree with him and lots of other groups that a very effective way of reducing smoking is price. A lot of research shows that if you do increase price you reduce consumption. We have a policy here called “Tobacco Free Ireland” which is aiming for a rate of less than five per cent of the population smoking by 2025, which is ambitious, but doable.’
Minister Harris has discussed the medication aspect of the issue with Prof Crown.
‘He was quite rightly advocating that Irish cancer patients need two other drugs made available to them, one called Pembro and another called Nivo. I’m open to the idea of having a special ring-fenced fund. However, the issue that has to be addressed is that we pay way more in this country for drugs than the European average.’
One of the solutions he puts forward is working together at a European level to buy drugs. Prof Crown has also said that people with lower incomes tend to wait longer for diagnoses. The Minister said that on the one hand, education on health and nutrition can help reduce the instances of cancer overall.
‘However, it is not acceptable that a person would be at a disadvantage in terms of access to diagnostics on the basis of wealth. It is absolutely a problem.’
The solution, he said, is ‘unapologetic investment in the health service,’ including more frontline staff and putting diagnostic equipment in to primary care centres.
He plans to form a cross-party group to devise a common ten-year strategy for the health service and sign up to it.
‘Regardless of what happens in politics then, there’s a roadmap and a price tag,’ said the minister.
On a campaign for a cystic fibrosis drug called Orkambi, Minister Harris said that while the recommendation was that the drug couldn’t be purchased at a particular price, the HSE and the manufacturers are negotiating that matter.
‘My hope is that the negotiation will be successful. People already on this drug will continue to receive it.’
Here in Wicklow, with the closure of Loughlinstown A&E department, is it acceptable that residents in areas such as Glendalough have such a long journey to hospital in an emergency?
‘What we need to do to make sure things are acceptable is to increase the capacity of the ambulance service,’ said Simon. ‘ The role of the paramedics has changed. They are highly trained, but we don’t have enough paramedics or vehicles.’
He added that the community first responders’ role has been highlightedi in a report given to the Dáil.
A citizens assembly to be formed will be tasked with teasing out issues relating to the eighth amendment, ‘ right to life’ aspect of our constitution.
‘My own position on this, and I’m not afraid or ashamed to say itit, has evolved,’ said Simon, who rrecently read a damning UN report ono the issue. ‘As I’ve met and spoken to people and informed myself on the situation. I’ve met a number of families affected by fatal foetal abnormalities. You couldn’t meet and talk to these people and hear their stories and not think this is an utterly unacceptable situation. I can’t look at these people and say “what you’ve gone through is acceptable”. I can’t do it. I don’t think it is acceptable. My belief is that the eighth amendment needs to be addressed. Ultimately we will need a referendum. We need to try to have a mature, respectful, informed dialogue as a country.’ THE average rent for properties in the private rented sector has increased by €60 in Co Wicklow in the past year.
New figures released by the Residential Tenancies Boards (RTB) reveal that the average rent paid was €952 in the first quarter of this year – an increse of €17 when compared to the average rent paid in Q4 of 2015 and a jump of €60 on Q1 of 2015.
This data comes from the latest RTB Quarterly Rent Index which is compiled by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) for the Board and relates to dwellings registered with the board.
It is the most accurate and authoritative rent report of its kind on the private accommodation sector in Ireland and is based on the actual rents being paid, according to the RTB’s records, as distinct from the asking or advertised rent.
This latest rent index shows that rents across the whole country continued to increase in Q1 of 2016, when compared with Q4 of 2015, although the rate of growth slowed in most sectors in the first quarter. At a national level, monthly rent levels rose in Q1 of 2016 (up by 0.5%) when compared with Q4 of 2015. This compared to a growth rate of 1.6% in Q4 of 2015. Monthly rents for houses were marginally lower, by 0.3%, while rents for apartments were 1.8% higher than in Q4, 2015.
‘ The trend in recent indices has been upwards, and that growth continued in Q1, 2016 with rents nationally now €73 a month higher than the same period in 2015,’ said Rosalind Carroll, Director of the RTB. ‘However, it appears that the rate of growth is slowing.
‘While it is too early to make any real deductions from this, this is the second quarter in succession that we have seen growth slow,’ she added. LUCY is a beautiful looking cat with the most lovely markings. She is about ten years old and would be looking for a quiet home. She would be the most fantastic companion; she is very affectionate, she loves her pets and purrs so loudly.
If you think you can offer a forever home, contact the office at 0404 44783 or call in during opening hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays and Bank Holidays, 1.30 p.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Wednesdays). Our home vetting policy applies. Check out the website www. wicklowspca.org to see all the animals that are looking for new homes.
Minister for Health Simon Harris.