Take a sport­ing chance on fix­ing the na­tion’s health

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

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.

Ex­ist­ing in­vest­ment

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

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