Simon Harris says cancer redress ‘will not be fast tracked’

The Government will not fast-track a compensation scheme for hundreds of women affected by the cervical cancer scandal despite 17 women dying.

As he launched an independent statutory investigation to uncover the full facts of the case, Health Minister Simon Harris said that while he was “not ruling out” such a scheme, no move will take place yet.

The HSE yesterday confirmed at least 208 women who have since been diagnosed with cervical cancer were initially told their tests were negative.

Of these, 17 have died. In 175 cases, women would have been given a different clinical treatment if earlier smears had been read correctly. And 162 of the 208 were not told a review had been conducted by CervicalCheck, or of the outcome.

Cian O’Carroll, solicitor for Vicky Phelan, the woman whose court action brought the cervical cancer scandal into the open, told the Irish Examiner he believed all 1,482 cases of cervical cancer notified to CervicalCheck since it began operations in 2008 should be subjected to independent review.

He also called on Mr Harris to “give a better account of what he actually knew” in advance of the Phelan case going to court.

In response to the growing anger over the crisis, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Harris said separately that a statutory inquiry led by State watchdog, the Health Information Quality Authority (Hiqa) will be launched immediately. It will be signed off by Cabinet today.

Mr Harris said a potential redress scheme for the 208 women — which could cost tens of millions of euro — will not be fast-tracked.

“In relation to redress, that is something I’m not ruling out, but what I want to do firstly is establish facts and provide women crucially with their information,” said Mr Harris.

“There are a range of different agencies involved including the State Claims Agency. I think it would be appropriate that the attorney general might be asked for advice.”

He said the inquiry will examine issues surrounding the cervical check screening programme arising from the experiences of Ms Phelan and the 208 women affected, and will also review other state cancer services as a precaution.

The inquiry will also have “full powers of compellability for both documents and witnesses”, and will take place in tandem with a “root and branch” international peer group review of Ireland’s cervical cancer services and the likely signing off of new mandatory laws insisting doctors provide full disclosure as part of the delayed Patient Safety Bill.

Mr O’Carroll said he would welcome Hiqa’s involvement but questioned the merits of a statutory investigation “which could drag on and on with the potential for those involved in wrongdoing to retire”.

Mr O’Carroll said it was “essential” all 1,482 cervical cancer cases notified to CervicalCheck were independently reviewed “which would allow a credible reappraisal of those [HSE] statistics and the breakdown”.

“It’s essential because women are in a position of fear,” he said.

It was also important Mr Harris released any documentation given to him notifying him in advance of the Phelan court case.

“It was clearly special enough to be brought to his attention. If he was told about the State’s defence strategy, did he approve it? I think he needs to release any details he was given.”

Opposition parties have demanded a special Dáil debate on the scandal today, while the cross-party health committee has sought an emergency meeting with Department of Health, HSE, and Cervical Check officials tomorrow. The Irish Cancer Society has sought an urgent meeting with Mr Harris.

HSE director general Tony O’Brien admitted yesterday that the first he heard of either Mr Phelan’s case or the scale of the scandal was through the media.

HSE helpline: 1800 454555

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