Health Minister Simon Harris could bow to mounting pressure and replace the Government’s planned cervical cancer test Hiqa-led inquiry with a full-scale commission of investigation after revealing the number of women affected could be “double” what was previously believed.
Mr Harris contradicted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by saying he is open to scrapping the initial Hiqa plans after saying a “potentially considerable number” of cervical cancer cases over the past decade have failed to be included in the initial HSE review.
In a lengthy statement at the start of an emergency three-hour Dáil debate, Mr Harris said he had been told that all cervical cancer cases notified to the National Cancer Registry since 2014 had been audited to ensure the necessary care was provided.
However, in a shock move described by Opposition TDs as a “bombshell”, the Health Minister said he has now learned “this is not the case” after information was “literally brought to my attention minutes before coming into this chamber”.
“I have to inform the House of some emerging information that I have received late this afternoon from the serious incident management team,” said Mr Harris.
“While I had previously been advised and it had been commonly understood that the CervicalCheck clinical audit covered all cases notified by the National Cancer Registry, I have been informed this afternoon that this is not the case.
“While CervicalCheck has audited all cases notified to it, I have been informed that a potentially considerable number of cases will not have been subjected to an audit.
“These are not new cases of cancer. Nor is it a group of women wondering if they have cancer. These are women who have already been diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated as such but their cases have not been included in a clinical audit.”
Mr Harris said the new figures only emerged moments before he came into the Dáil last night, and that the information had been uncovered due to the ongoing work of the HSE’s serious incident management team examining the crisis.
While admitting “quite frankly I don’t know” how many more women are involved, he said he agreed with Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly’s suggestion the latest revelation could “double” the current 208 women affected by the scandal.
This is because only 1,482 cases were checked by CervicalCheck instead of the near 3,000 notified to the National Cancer Registry during the period.
News of the new figures led to a furious reaction from Opposition TDs last night, with Labour health spokesman Alan Kelly describing the situation as a “bombshell” and warning that the situation is a case of “here we go again”.
After facing demands from Mr Kelly to ditch the planned Hiqa-led inquiry in favour of a full-scale commission of investigation “as that’s where we’re going to end up anyway”, Mr Harris said given last night’s revelations he is now willing to discuss such a move.
Responding to Mr Kelly’s claim that he has “zero confidence” in Hiqa to carry out the investigation, Mr Harris said: “Hiqa has gotten to the bottom [of issues in the past]. But I do also take the point that there may be bigger and wider issues emerging.
“We need the right mechanism to get the answers. It has to be a mechanism that has teeth, I believe the Hiqa one does, but I’m happy to discuss.”
During the same debate, Mr Harris said the Department of Health only became aware of Vicky Phelan’s case on April 6 and defended the briefing note he received on April 16 from criticism by Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly saying it was not intended to block discussion.
The health minister also confirmed he will write to all women in Ireland aged between 25 and 60 in the coming days to inform them of how to access information about the cervical cancer crisis and how to seek follow-up smear tests if they have concerns.
Mr Harris agreed to the step after an hour-long meeting with the Irish Cancer Society’s chief executive, Averil Power, yesterday.
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