‘Anger’ but no more heads to roll in cervical smear scandal

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 Mhic 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 Mhic 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 Mhic 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.

<p class="orangeheader">Supports</p>

 

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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