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Austerity ‘better than bankruptcy’ – Sec Gen Watt

By Julinda Schroeder - 04th Dec 2023


The Secretary General of the Department of Health told a recent conference that austerity measures imposed because of the 2008 economic crisis were a better alternative than bankruptcy.

Mr Robert Watt was speaking at the Health Management Institute of Ireland (HMI) Annual Conference in Dublin on 25 October.

The theme of the conference was ‘Leading healthcare integration: Strategies for optimising patient care’.

Mr Watt was responding to a presentation by Prof Steve Thomas (PhD), Edward Kennedy Chair of Health Policy and Management and the Director of Health Policy and Engagement at the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin.

Prof Thomas’s talk referred to the negative legacies of the economic crisis for the Irish healthcare system, such as growing waiting lists and staff burnout.

However, Mr Watt told delegates that austerity measures were essential due to the scale of the economic recession. “We did it because we had no choice,” he said.

“We got through [the crisis] because there was a plan and we focused on things that mattered; we did a systematic analysis of issues and focused on that,” he said.

Mr Watt was an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Finance prior to his appointment as Secretary General in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2011. He was appointed to his current role in 2021.

Mr Watt highlighted some of the current challenges faced by the Irish healthcare system.

These included an ageing population and increased demand for health services.

Replying to a question from the floor, Mr Watt stressed the importance of early and continuous prevention of illness and the promotion of healthy ageing.

Another speaker, Mr Damien McCallion, HSE Chief Operations Officer, also referred to the pressures on health services associated with the ageing population.

He said investment was needed in healthcare governance and leadership to facilitate the integration of structures and services. In this regard, Mr McCallion said hospital and community services needed to be aligned. See conference coverage, p14.

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