CervicalCheck scandal: Most of the 209 women in audit contacted

Update 7.41pm: Most of the women affected by the Cervical Check audit have now been contacted.

The latest update from the HSE says of the 209 cases where the audit showed their test could have provided a different result, contact has now been made with 203 women or families.

It says meetings have either been held or arranged with them.

According to the latest audit update, 5,772 calls have now been returned to women.

Further information about the audit, and advice for anyone concerned, is available on cervicalcheck.ie.

Update 3.45pm: I'd like to see all smear test analysed in Irish labs, says Health Minister

Health Minister Simon Harris has said he would like future cervical smear tests to be analysed in Irish labs, but only if they have the capacity.

Simon Harris expressed a preference for home-based examination of samples amid the ongoing controversy over inaccurate test results.

A number of the 209 cancer patients who were wrongly given the all-clear had their smear samples analysed by US companies.

Mr Harris said three labs were currently contracted to examine smear tests carried out on Irish women - two based in Ireland and one in the UK - and insisted all were quality assured.

The healthcare controversy was triggered by the case of Vicky Phelan, a terminally ill mother whose legal battle cast light on the issue.

Last month Ms Phelan, a 43-year-old mother-of-two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action for €2.5m after being incorrectly told in 2011 that her smear test had given a negative result for cancer.

In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer but only told of the false negative last September.

On Saturday, Mr Harris said the US lab at the centre of Ms Phelan's case was no longer being used by Ireland's national CervicalCheck screening programme.

"I instinctively would like to use labs in our own country but have to make sure we have the capacity," he said.

"We don't want to have a situation where we decide to use labs in our own country and then have very long waiting times for smear tests because we know that would have an adverse impact on women's health."

UK health expert Dr Gabriel Scally has been commissioned by the Irish Government to lead an inquiry into the misinterpretation of the cancer tests.

Mr Harris said he would be guided by Dr Scally's findings in relation to future laboratory outsourcing contracts.

The political crisis has already seen Health Service Executive (HSE) chief Tony O'Brien quit.

Earlier this month it emerged that an audit by CervicalCheck of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in earlier smear tests in 209 of the cases, with results showing no abnormalities when they should have flagged a cancer warning.

While screening tests are not 100% accurate and there are acknowledged risks on the possibility of incorrect results, the fact the majority of the affected patients were not told of the outcome of the audit has prompted a wave of public anger.

Of the 209 women, 17 have since died.

Mr Harris had appointed Scottish healthcare executive John Connaghan as the interim director of the HSE.

The minister said he had told him that nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the full facts coming out.

"I have asked him to make sure that the HSE and all of its employees co-operate in full with the Scally inquiry," he said.

"I don't want any obstacle to the truth coming out here, I think that's absolutely essential.

"People rightly want accountability - who knew what, where and when?"

Mr O'Brien had been due to retire in the summer before his dramatic resignation on Thursday night.

It has emerged that he will continue to be paid until then, as his contract stipulates a three-month notice period.

Mr Harris said: "Let me be very clear - there is no extra deal, bonus deal, no big pay-off above and beyond what is already in the contract of Tony O'Brien.

"The state obviously has to honour legal contracts that are already in place."

The Cabinet on Friday agreed a support package for the women caught up in the controversy. It will include financial support for treatment.

Also covered will be the cost of medicines, including experimental drugs as well as practical expenses, such as travel costs and childcare.

Bereavement counselling and other counselling services will also be provided to the families of women who have already died.

As well as Ms Phelan, others affected by the errors have also come forward to tell powerful stories.

Emma Mhic Mhathuna, 37, from Co Kerry, revealed on Thursday that she had now been diagnosed with terminal cancer, five years after being told her smear tests were normal.

Stephen Teap, from Co Cork, has expressed his anger that his wife Irene died without ever knowing that her smear tests had been wrongly interpreted.

There are a number of legal challenges similar to Ms Phelan's in the pipeline.

Mr Harris has said the Government is taking steps to ensure those women would not have to go to court to get answers.

Mr O'Brien resigned hours after it emerged that an internal HSE briefing note that flagged potential errors in screening tests in 2016 stressed the need for a media strategy to respond to stories of women whose cancer diagnosis was missed.

The memo to HSE bosses from Ireland's National Screening Service (NSS) also advised a "pause" in the process of communicating to clinicians the findings of the audit of smear test results belonging to women who were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.

The HSE forwarded three 2016 memos to the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee on Thursday as members probed the growing controversy around the misinterpreted smear tests.

Update 12:15pm: Harris says Ireland needs to have better capacity for smear testing labs

Simon Harris says Ireland needs to have better capacity for smear testing labs.

The Health Minister says he is determined to get to the bottom of 'who knew what and when' about the Cervical Check scandal.

Speaking this morning, he says outsourcing and quality assurance will form part of the Scally inquiry.

And Minister Harris says long smear test waiting lists are not acceptable.

He said: "I do think it's right and proper that we listen to the concerns of women in relation to this.

"I instinctively would like to use labs in our own country, but we have to make sure we have the capacity.

"We don't want to have a situation where we decide to use labs in our own country and then have very long waiting times for smear tests because we know that would have an adverse impact on women's health.

"I'll be led by the Sally Inquiry's findings."

No more heads to roll as Ministers back chief medical officer

by Elaine Loughlin, Sean O’Riordan and Daniel McConnell

{b]Earlier: The Taoiseach and the Health Minister have defended the Department of Health’s chief medical officer, despite the fact that he kept details of the cervical smear scandal from them for two years.

The Taoiseach and the Health Minister have defended the Department of Health’s chief medical officer, despite the fact that he kept details of the cervical smear scandal from them for two years.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris have both expressed full confidence in Dr Tony Holohan but also stressed the need to hold those responsible to account.

It comes as Emma Ní Mhathúna, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, welcomed a package of measures to support the 209 women impacted by the screening controversy along with their families.

But the mother-of-five also called for accountability for the failures within the cervical cancer screening system and vowed to continue to highlight the issue until questions are answered.

Emma Ní Mhathúna

Dr Holohan was one of two people in the Department of Health who received three memos in 2016 that revealed CervicalCheck were preparing a media response to possible headlines that would read “screening did not diagnose my cancer”.

The damning memos, which resulted in the departure of HSE boss Tony O’Brien, also stated that letters to the women affected would be “paused” and the order and volume of dispatch would be decided on to “mitigate potential risks”.

In a video to staff as he departed last night Mr O’Brien said: “What’s important now despite the setback that the health service has experienced is that you all remain focused on the important work that you do.”

John Connaghan, who had been a deputy director general of the HSE, has now been appointed interim head of the HSE.

A rescheduled Cabinet meeting was held in Dublin yesterday where ministers signed off on a package of “practical” and “flexible” measures to assist the women who have been impacted by the controversy.

Reacting, Ms Ní Mhathúna said the measures, which include discretionary medical cards, travel and childcare expenses and counselling services, were welcome but said she would continue with her campaign.

“Mothers are dying so we need childcare and travel for cancer services. It’s great that people are starting to mop up the mess, but we need accountability, accountability, accountability.”

Asked about the resignation of Tony O’Brien she said: “The whipping plaster has been taken off the wound and now we need to get to the core of this and see how it happened.”

She said that there needed to be accountability not just in terms of the cervical cancer issue but right across the whole HSE where she said ordinary doctors and nurses who were already working around the clock “were picking up the pieces.”

Along with the support package, Mr Harris said a mediation approach would be adopted to deal with the 10 pending legal cases so that women do not have to be dragged through the courts like Limerick woman Vicky Phelan.

The extent of the scandal only emerged after Ms Phelan was awarded €2.5m from a US lab in a High Court settlement.

It was then revealed that an audit by the CervicalCheck screening programme of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in earlier smear tests in 209 of the cases, with results showing no abnormalities when they should have flagged a cancer warning.

Mr Harris and Mr Varadkar both expressed frustration and anger that they had not been made aware of the 2016 memos but continued to express confidence in Dr Holohan last night.

Mr Varadkar said: “Would I have liked to have known? Of course I would have like to have known, I was briefed on other patient-safety issues.”

He pointed out that there have been a number of resignations over the scandal already but said: “When it comes to holding people to account I think any reasonable person would agree there must be due process and a fair hearing and that’s exactly what these investigations will do.”

Mr Harris said he was “very annoyed” that he had not been informed of the 2016 memos.

Supports

Measures announced by Government to support 209 women and their families who have been impacted by the CervicalCheck controversy include:

  • A discretionary medical card for each woman affected, or their next of kin in cases where the woman has sadly died, so that they can avail of health services, including medicines provided under the medical card scheme, free of charge;
  • Out-of-pocket medical costs incurred, including the cost of any medicines which have been prescribed by their treating clinician, will be paid for;
  • Primary care supports, including counselling for the women affected, will be provided. Counselling services will also be provided for the immediate family members of these women, including bereavement counselling where needed;
  • Other health and social care supports, including travel costs and child-minding, will be paid for.

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