Families affected by the cervical cancer tests scandal have warned women’s lives are still being put at risk after the Government admitted a thousand free checks given after the crisis are useless because of chronic delays in producing results.
Stephen Teap and Lorraine Walsh hit out after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to admit the Government’s own solution to the original tests crisis had led to even more problems.
In a damning revelation during leaders’ questions, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Dáil the already-damaged Cervical Check system is now in “crisis mode”.
In the immediate aftermath of the cervical cancer tests scandal, the Government offered all women free smear test re-checks to calm nationwide fears over how many women may have been wrongly told they did not have cervical cancer.
However, Mr Martin said he had been told “enormous” backlogs of up to six months in examining these tests meant a “significant” number of the re-checks may be “null and void”.
Saying the service must operate “within certain timelines” to “work effectively”, Mr Martin said it is instead unable to safely carry out its work, because of the number of women seeking check-ups. Noting that the usual figure of 230,000 women seen by Cervical Check had surged by 108,000 last year.
He warned the resulting backlog had led to “a delay that has impacted on the quality of the tests and rendered a significant number invalid”.
While initially defending the decision to offer free smear tests, saying it was needed to address the “considerable fears and anxieties of many women”, Mr Varadkar admitted tests will have to be carried out again.
I was made aware by [Health] Minister [Simon] Harris a few weeks ago that there was a backlog, that this was creating problems and, as a result of that, some tests had expired and would have to be repeated.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner last night, Mr Teap — whose wife Irene passed away after being wrongly told she did not have cervical cancer — and Ms Walsh, who survived an incorrect test, hit out at the latest service crisis.
Mr Teap said smear tests must be transferred onto a slide within six weeks to ensure they are not contaminated, a schedule he said is repeatedly not being met.
“There is a concern that, if there is a delayed diagnosis, that will put more women at risk. The whole point of the service is to have an early diagnosis. The worrying thing about it all is that test results are being delayed.”
Ms Walsh similarly said the re-checks pose serious concerns for women directly affected and will have a further knock-on impact for other families, including women meant to be given immediate coloscopy tests, because they are believed to be most at risk.
“For me, the concern is that in the midst of all this there will be other women who need to be diagnosed, but are having their tests delayed,” she said, adding the latest re-checks risk “clogging up the system for months”.
In a statement last night, a spokesperson for Mr Harris said 0.29% of tests between April and October expired, a figure that equates to a thousand tests, but he argued this is not significantly higher than previous years.
The spokesperson defended the decision to provide free, out-of-schedule smear tests to address public concerns last year and he rejected Mr Martin’s claim it went against expert advice, adding “every effort is being made to improve” the test results waiting times.
Meanwhile, one of the most high-profile women affected by the scandal, Vicky Phelan, has won a crucial battle for the public over access to the potentially life-saving drug Pembro on a “case by case” basis.
While Labour health spokesperson Alan Kelly welcomed the news, Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said the “case-by-case” limit will be worrying for those whose access is still blocked.