The commotion around a helpline that didn’t work; a distrust of the HSE’s ability to supply reliable data; and a preoccupation with media coverage of the CervicalCheck crisis are themes in a series of revealing texts between the health minister and his most senior adviser (the texts have been obtained through Freedom of Information).
A text also shows Health Minister Simon Harris being put under pressure last April, by the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), to allow women to have repeat out-of-cycle smears.
That decision, which he went ahead with later that day, is now being blamed for a smear backlog of 80,000.
Separate notes reference a decision by Medlab, one of three laboratories dealing with smear tests, to “invoke force majeure on its contract” (where unforeseeable circumstances prevent the fulfilment of contract terms).
Medlab took the action, as the number of smears it was dealing with was “spiking at four times the norm”. Medlab, which processes 45% of smears, is currently experiencing delays of up to 33 weeks.
The documents show CervicalCheck dealing with “in the region of 60 legal requests”.
In one email, last May, Mr Harris says: “I read, in today’s papers, that a number of them intend to start legal action this week. I don’t want to see any woman in such a situation having to go through the court.”
Court cases are continuing, with a Cork mother of two, who has terminal cancer, securing a €2.5m settlement this week, after she sued for a misread slide.
The texts between Mr Harris and his chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, reflect the minister’s anger that callers to the helpline for women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal were greeted with an automated message.
“You couldn’t make this up. A helpline put out there, people told it will be open at 9am, and then a message saying, ‘closed until Monday’. Am flooded with messages on- and offline from women trying to call.
“This adds insult to injury,” Mr Harris texted at 9.23am on April 28, 2018, the morning the helpline was due to open.
Dr Holohan said he had asked CervicalCheck and HSElive “to tweet that we are experiencing technical difficulties”, as this “might take a little pressure off”.
At 10.24am, the minister texted his CMO, asking if the line was now operational.
Dr Holohan texted back:
Yes, I called it myself and that’s how I found out!
The text exchanges show distrust between the department and the HSE, vis-a-vis accurate information on the number of women with cervical cancer who were informed by their doctors that their smear histories were part of an audit.
On April 29, Mr Harris texted his CMO, saying: “We really do need to know how many of the 206 women were told by their doctors or not, today.
“Media leaks, etc, are now emerging, which will further add confusion and my answer will lose credibility, if it drags on and on. More complex questions can take longer to answer, but the basic question — did a woman know or not? — is really important.”
Mr Harris then texted “HSE telling media they will know the figures tonight,” to which Dr Holohan responded: “I expect them to, but I’m reluctant to rely on their promises or intentions, so I want to see the data with my own eyes.”