Cancer review to focus on lab quality

Simon Harris and Tony O'Brien.

The Government’s cervical cancer tests scandal review will examine serious fears that the State failed to ensure the quality of the labs to which it outsourced services — but may delay its findings until the end of June.

The Irish Examiner has learned the tendering and outsourcing controversy will be central to the review’s terms of reference when they are brought to Cabinet today amid claims officials prioritised getting the service for the cheapest price.

In plans to be agreed today, as it emerged that thousands who phoned the HSE’s emergency cervical check helpline will have to wait until the weekend to be contacted, Health Minister Simon Harris will seek cabinet approval for the scoping review which will ultimately recommend if a commission of investigation is needed.

And while its proposed terms will be wide-reaching and the initial investigation will begin immediately, they have also left room to delay any findings until the end of June, instead of early June as planned — risking fresh opposition party outcry.

According to the terms of reference due to be signed off on today, almost two weeks after the crisis publicly emerged, the scoping review will:

  • Be led by a UK-based oncologist who will be appointed today;
  • Examine the tendering, contracting and operation of the outsourced US labs;
  • Establish why at least 209 women who were given incorrect smear test all-clears were not told what happened;
  • Uncover what Cervical Check, HSE, the State Claims Agency and Department of Health managers knew about the scandal;
  • Meet with cervical cancer victim Vicky Phelan and “any other woman affected” as a matter of urgency.

The scoping review memo will be discussed at a Cabinet meeting today which will be dominated by the cervical cancer tests scandal, during which the scale of any potential redress scheme and new mandatory open disclosure laws for medics which will force them to tell patients about all care errors will be discussed.

Meanwhile, beleaguered HSE director general Tony O’Brien is continuing to face calls to resign or be sacked, despite Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Harris formally saying they still believe he should see out his contract which ends in July.

Tony O’Brien.

However, while it is expected Mr O’Brien will be the subject of a Sinn Féin tabled Dáil no confidence motion tonight, there are growing concerns that Ceann Comhairle Sean O’Fearghail may rule the motion out of order.

This is because of claims the motion — put down as an amendment to an already tabled Rural Independents Group motion on health — may substantially change the meaning of the initial motion.

The HSE’s national director for emergency management, Damien McCallion, who has been drafted in to take over Cervical Check in the short term, separately told RTÉ Radio’s News at One programme the service may not be able to call back all women who have phoned the emergency Cervical Check helpline until the weekend.

In a further sign of the scale of the scandal, Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told the Irish Examiner his children go to the same creche as the sons of Irene Teap, one of the women who died without knowing she was given two incorrect smear test results.

Stephen Teap and his wife Irene who passed away last year.

Mr Coveney, who spoke to Ms Teap’s widower, Stephen, for an hour on Saturday, said: “He is demanding we learn lessons from his tragedy so that it doesn’t happen again. I’ve given him a commitment that I’ll do that.”

In a blog which emerged last night titled ‘Fierce and Fighting’ about her cancer battle, the late Ms Teap wrote about her sons, saying: “I can’t count the number of times my eyes filled up with tears just watching the boys beaming and laughing and having fun.

“Their smiling faces are the very best medicine.”

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