Phelan: No capacity to resolve screening delays

Vicky Phelan

Campaigner Vicky Phelan has hit out at lengthy delays in the cervical screening process as “unacceptable”.

Speaking one year after settling her case for €2.5m against the US laboratory over the alleged misreading of her cervical cancer smear, the campaigner said the decision by Health Minister Simon Harris to offer free repeat tests to women was correct but that it should have been backed with the proper resources.

“I’ve always said I thought it was the right decision at the time because women were terrified. The problem was it wasn’t backed up with resources so they didn’t have the capacity, we’ve been told there is no capacity and that is why there is this delay, which is unacceptable,” she told RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan.

The backlog in processing tests now stands at around 80,000 with women waiting more than eight months for results. That backlog has been blamed on the minister’s decision to offer repeat out-of-cycle smears to women after the CervicalCheck scandal broke.

Ms Phelan also apologised to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who she had criticised in an article in The Irish Times yesterday,- saying a range of agencies were to blame for the problem.

I’m critical of the Government in general. Some of what I said was taken out of context and I would like to apologise to the Taoiseach for the comment in today’s article.

“What I said, I was trying to make the point that the issues faced by the women and their families are wide-ranging. They involve input from a wide range of players, the HSE, the Department of Health, the medical and legal professions and the Attorney General’s office,” she said.

Ms Phelan pointed out that “any unwillingness on the part of one player can hold everything up and that’s what’s happened over the last 12 months” and said that Ireland, in general, had a poor record in dealing with issues that affect women.

The Limerick campaigner also said that she has always been keen to stress the importance of the screening programme, adding that it saves thousands of lives.

“I was very, very careful in insisting that women still go for their smears. What I had a problem with, and it’s still the same, was the management of the screening programme and the way it was being run, not in screening itself. Screening saves lives. The cervical screening programme, while it has its faults, it has saved thousands of lives. I certainly didn’t want to stop women going for smears because it does save lives,” she said.

Ms Phelan also spoke about her life changed after giving a statement outside the High Court last year - saying that she never expected the level of public scrutiny that was to follow.

“I thought I’d see myself on the news and that would be it, I would move on with my life. I never for a minute imagined that I would still be doing all of this or that I would be here a year later... But to find out after a couple of weeks that there was a couple of hundred women, at that stage, I was so enraged at what was coming out I couldn’t step back. And that’s why I am doing it.”

I still feel very uncomfortable with a lot of all this. I never wanted to be a celebrity or in the papers or have people come up and recognise me. But it’s lovely. It’s for people I’m doing this. I’m not doing this for plaudits or awards,” she said.

Ms Phelan described the Scally report as a “watershed moment in Irish healthcare” and praised Dr Gabriel Scally for not being afraid to criticise when he felt necessary.

“He was unafraid to criticise. It was unlike any report that had come before. It wasn’t a token report. He provided us with a template to make it possible for us to have a screening programme that we can proud of and that will save even more lives. That’s what’s happening at the moment. We are making some headway.”

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