HSE response to cancer crisis ‘disgusting’

Simon Harris

Health Minister Simon Harris has described the HSE’s response to the cervical cancer tests scandal as “disgusting” amid growing calls for HSE director general Tony O’Brien to be sacked within days.

Mr Harris said the drip-feed nature of the response is “quite frankly disgraceful, disgusting and unacceptable” and warned the HSE “is the reason why there is going to be a statutory investigation” as relations continue to sour.

Speaking as Sinn Féin tabled a no-confidence motion in Mr O’Brien for next Tuesday and as Fianna Fáil said the HSE chief must resign immediately, Mr Harris said the response to date has been unacceptable.

And while both he, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and the HSE all said last night Mr O’Brien will not be forced out of office, Mr Harris’s decision to label his response as “disgusting” is likely to increase pressure on the HSE chief to resign.

The health minister’s comment at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s annual conference in Cork came as Sinn Féin formally called for Mr O’Brien to be sacked in a detailed motion tabled yesterday.

The motion, which will be heard in the Dáil on Tuesday evening as part of an amendment to a Rural Independents Group motion on the need to reform HSE management, said Mr O’Brien must step down due to the ongoing cervical cancer tests crisis.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said Mr O’Brien’s position was untenable, and that he can no longer be trusted to oversee the response to what has happened.

And while the motion in itself is unlikely to force the Government to act, the call was given significant support last night by Fianna Fáil, whose health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said the HSE director general must now leave “with immediate effect”.

My position and Fianna Fáil’s position is, in interests of public confidence being rebuilt, we believe Mr O’Brien should step down now with immediate effect.

“At this point it is clear Mr O’Brien staying for the remainder of his term is going to distract from supporting women. He should without prejudice step back with immediate effect,” Mr Donnelly told Newstalk radio.

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach said Mr Varadkar’s position has not changed and that he believes Mr O’Brien should remain in place until his contract ends in 12 weeks, a view repeated by Mr Harris.

However, Government sources have acknowledged the situation is fast-flowing and that the current official support for the HSE director general may change in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said yesterday there needs to be a clear “cultural” change within HSE management and insisted all facts must be given to patients about their care.

Facing criticism over the fact the US laboratory at the centre of the scandal is still being paid by the State, Mr Harris said “there will be an opportunity to re-configure our lab situation and indeed to re-tender” when the current deal ends in October.

Separately, opposition parties yesterday sent Mr Harris formal suggestions for what they would like to be included in the potential commission of investigation into what has happened.

They include a public inquiry, reviews of all cancer services, and suggestions on ending the outsourcing of laboratory services.

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