Take a sporting chance on fixing the nation’s health
There is a scene in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Plainview meets the local property developer to ensure he’s bought up all the land around the oil-rich Sunday Ranch, only to be told the Bandy tract is still holding out. “Why don’t I own that?” he asks.
Government ministers across all departments must be thinking something similar after the scenes at the Krispy Kreme doughnut store in Blanchardstown this week. All-day queues out the door – the rest parked at the drive-through – they’re selling as fast as they can be fat-fried in hydrogenated oil: the drippingly sweet start at ¤2.45 each, a box of a dozen pick-your-own glazed cost ¤18, and for that they’ll throw in another dozen for an even ¤25.
We all enjoy a sweet treat – and according to some this is just a doughnut “craze” – only here we have possibly the most sugar-rich product available to humankind, with a nutritional value somewhere below zero, and yet not one cent qualifies for the sugar tax so heroically introduced by the Government in April, for the sole purpose, remember, of tackling the spiralling obesity levels in our otherwise self-confessed sporting mad nation, especially among children.
You don’t need me to remind you of the projections, when one in four Irish schoolchildren is now considered to be overweight, and according to some reports, our obesity levels will be hovering somewhere around 90 per cent of the population by 2030, the highest projected level Europe.
There is talk that this “fat tax” – to give it the less polite term – can be extended to sweet snacks, not just sugary drinks, but either way any future doughnut tax will come too late to impact on revenues for this year, where it seems every little bit will be a help – even the extra 10 cent in sugar tax they’re now getting on a can of Coke. Now pardon me if you’ve heard this before: people might be better off, or worse off, but typically, not by much. Because that, the insiders are saying again, is everything you need to know about next Tuesday’s budget. As in all times of post-austerity it’s still all about balancing the books.
The problem, like budget 2017, is that bottomless pit of spending also known as the Department of Health. Our own sporting mad Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned the Government can no longer be “throwing money” at problem areas in health, yet this is exactly what’s happening. Varadkar has also admitted the 2018 health budget of some ¤15.3 billion, one of the highest levels of expenditure on health per person anywhere in the world, was “hard to justify” given Ireland’s relatively young population.
This by the way now accounts for more than a quarter of total gross Government spending of some ¤58 billion (another quarter of which goes on social protection). And that’s not including the health overrun for 2018, which according to those in the know could be between ¤750 million and a worst-case scenario of ¤1.1 billion.
Nowhere is the health service haemorrhaging more money than in the hospitals, which accounts for almost a third of total health spend, ¤4.7 billion, with a record 514,000 still on hospital waiting lists. By all accounts things will get worse before they get better, further cash injections needed to roll out Sláintecare, designed to make things a little more cost-effective.
No wonder the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has been advising his colleagues to hope for the best and fear for the worst on Tuesday: health is killing it for everyone else, even the now national emergency that is the housing crisis. Donohoe only has about ¤800 million left to play around with, some ¤265 million of that to go on tax cuts. Peanuts, in other words, the worry is he’ll have nothing extra left to give over to Irish sport.
It’s just over two months since our Minister for Sport Shane Ross stood under the blistering sun in Sheriff Street at a photo shoot for the new National Sports Policy 2018-2027, the headline of which was the promise to double Government investment in sport from the current annual figure of ¤111 million to ¤220 million, beginning, naturally, with budget 2018. That ¤111 million is currently the entire sporting pot, including the much-maligned Sports Capital Programme. There would, said Ross, also be a trebling of annual high performance investment support, from the current figure of about ¤10 million to ¤30 million, also over the next decade, and again beginning with budget 2018.
Clearly the existing investment in sport is not enough. Doubling that by 2027 may be a lofty aspiration, especially as it all depends on the economy and who exactly remains in Government. Brendan Griffin, Minister of State at the Department, made that exact point at the time: “Of course it’s easier said than done, it is a substantial increase, but I think it will pay dividends many times over, and I want to see us getting as far down that road as early as possible. We want to move away from boom-bust cycle, and I think that this increase in the level of investment will be achievable in any type of ordinary results for the economy.”
Here’s the deal: an estimated ¤1.5 billion of our annual health budget is due to illness or ailment related to physical inactivity, and there’s no easy way of putting any figure on what sport does for the mental health of the nation. Which is why one of these years the Government needs to move away from the bust-bust cycle of the health spend, and give more over to the boom-boom cycle of sport, or else get started on that doughnut tax.
One of these years the Government needs to move away from the bust-bust cycle of the health spend, and give more over to the boom-boom cycle of sport