Senior civil servants blame HSE procurement failures for €1 billion unsanctioned spend

Unlawful HSE expenditure left the health service in a “precarious” and “exposed” position – according to a memo written by Departments of Health and Public Expenditure officials. 

Though the memo warned that failing to address unsanctioned expenditure could put the HSE in danger, a Department of Health spokesperson told The Ditch this spend occurred because the Dáil wasn’t sitting and couldn’t authorise additional expenditure during Covid-19. 

 “In order to minimise the risk to the public and vital health care workers from an infectious disease of then unknown mortality rates, the Department of Health had to urgently source medical supplies, such as PPE,” the spokesperson said.  

Leaked audio from a June 2020 Department of Health meeting however has senior civil servants blaming governance failures in the health service for approximately €1 billion in unsanctioned spending. 

One official compared HSE procurement to “a drunk person on Friday night at a cashpoint”. 

‘An exposed position’

The Departments of Health and Public Expenditure on 17 April, 2020 wrote a memo requesting €1.83 billion for the HSE, inclusive of an already authorised €435 million.

The memo, which was written by a health department finance officer, told government the HSE was spending money without authorisation and that this needed to be dealt with urgently.

“We are now advised that the memo will not be on the government agenda on Tuesday,” reads the memo. “This leaves the department and (public expenditure department) in an exposed position in that we are sanctioning expenditure for which we have no specific government decision.”

A note left by senior health department official Paul Bolger also noted the difficulties faced by the health service because of the spend.  

“I have advised Andrew Monroe that this does leave the (Department of Health), HSE, and (Department of Public Expenditure) in a precarious position as we are incurring expenditure in the absence of a government decision,” he wrote.  

‘Like a drunk person at a cashpoint’

In a health department online meeting in June 2020 other civil servants expressed concern about the HSE spending roughly €1 billion on PPE without permission from government. 

Government “were obviously cheesed off when Paul Reid wrote in that they’d already spent the €1 billion”, said one principal officer in audio heard by The Ditch. 

The previous month, Reid had suggested this €1 billion required for PPE had not yet been spent

The same principal officer claimed Reid was “blithely” spending money on PPE procurement deals and that HSE procurement was “like a drunk person on a Friday night at a cashpoint”.  

One civil servant said Reid had been “like a cat on a hot tin roof to get his sanction for the China resources 208 (million)” and yet seemed to be “blithely spending hundreds of millions of euros” on other procurement deals.

Attendees at the June meeting also spoke about challenging Tim Cummins, HSE head of treasury, about the necessity for further funds if €1 billion had already been spent on PPE since February 2020.

“We were saying to Tim, if you’ve spent €1 billion on PPE, Paul Reid’s letter says a billion covers a year – if you started buying this back in February you must have PPE to last the year,” they said. “You’re into something else if you’re looking for more money on this.”

The Department of Health told The Ditch that all funds spent by the health service up to and after April 2020 were sanctioned after the fact by the Oireachtas. 

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors