The Health Minister has dismissed suggestions by his own officials that the CervicalCheck steering committee is in danger of being wound down.
Fears that it would be disbanded prematurely arose over the weekend when a department official remarked that the next meeting of the committee was potentially the last, or second last.
Lorraine Walsh and Stephen Teap, patient representatives on the committee, said the remark was passed when the date was being set last Thursday for the next meeting of the committee.
When Ms Walsh emailed the department seeking clarification, she received the following response: “You might recall that the December minutes noted agreement on further discussion about what governance and oversight arrangements might look like long term, and how the oversight structure could evolve from the point of view of best supporting the work that needs to be done.
“Reference at the end of the meeting to keeping arrangements under review was in that context.”
Ms Walsh said she was not reassured by the response, and remained “deeply, deeply concerned”.
She believed the department regarded herself and Mr Teap as “a thorn in their side”.
The HSE, on the other hand, was “putting in a huge effort trying to right the wrong”, even if change was “slower than a snail”.
Ms Walsh said she did not believe Minister Simon Harris was “part of the equation” in any decision to wind down the steering committee.
A spokesperson for Mr Harris said he had “made it clear the steering committee should not be wound down until all outstanding issues are resolved”.
Mr Teap and Ms Walsh said many issues remain outstanding, including an ongoing independent review of smear tests of any woman who had a cervical cancer diagnosis since screening began in 2008 (approx 1,800); the setting up of an independent statutory tribunal to deal with claims arising from the CervicalCheck controversy, which will require legislation; a backlog of circa 80,000 smear tests waiting to be read; the need to implement all 50 recommendations of the Scally Report on CervicalCheck and the delayed introduction of HPV testing, a more advanced method of testing for cervical cancer.
HPV testing was originally due for introduction last September but Ms Walsh said she cannot see it going ahead this year.
“Until we get more capacity in the system to deal with the smear test backlog, the HSE can’t possibly bring in a new system of testing,” she said.
Ms Walsh, who is now cancer free, was diagnosed in 2012 after a smear test. Medical experts said had a 2011 smear test not been misread, she could have avoided the surgery that destroyed her chances of bearing children.
Mr Teap, a father-of-two from Cork, lost his wife Irene to cervical cancer, which was missed by two smear tests.
The steering committee was set up to oversee the implementation of key decisions by Government in relation to CervicalCheck and to look at what needed to be done to ensure a more effective screening programme going forward.