The HSE has committed to opening a dedicated national cervical screening laboratory by 2022, ending the need to outsource the processing and reading of cervical smear tests to other facilities, including US labs.
The HSE is committing €15m-€20m in capital funding for the building of a new national lab for the CervicalCheck cancer screening programme in conjunction with the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital.
The move follows the CervicalCheck controversy that emerged in 2018 following a series of failures which saw smear tests being misread and women receiving incorrect results.
The scandal led to a series of legal actions by women who had since been diagnosed with cervical cancer, some of who have since passed away, including 39-year-old campaigner Ruth Morrissey, who died last month.
The Government has also established a CervicalCheck tribunal to deal with outstanding legal actions.
The HSE confirmed to the Irish Examiner that a joint project team and steering group has been established with the Coombe hospital with the aim of opening the facility in 2022, but cautioned the timeline will be contingent on a number of factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is projected that the laboratory will be operational in 2022. This timeframe is an estimate, dependent on a number of factors such as the outcome of the tender process, the continued easing of Government restrictions on Covid-19, and the ability to recruit and train sufficient staff to provide a full service,” a spokesperson for the HSE said.
The HSE also confirmed that work is being carried out to establish the operational costs for the new facility, a tender process for construction is under way, and the recruitment of key staff has already started.
A spokesperson for the HSE said: “An exercise for developing the operational costs for the laboratory, which would have the capacity to undertake all cervical screening services is under way. The exercise will look at staffing, logistical, and equipment costs.
“Once the tender process is complete, a timeframe for the construction of the laboratory can be outlined,” they added.
The 221+ patient support group, representing women impacted by the CervicalCheck controversy, welcomed the plans, and called for patient representation on the new steering committee for the development.
“We will be emphasising the need for a patient advocate on the project steering group in parallel with the similar existing role on the Department of Health's CervivalCheck Steering Committee, and in keeping with the recommendations of Dr [Gabriel] Scally on the role of advocates in developing a more effective healthcare system generally,” the patient support group said in a statement to the Irish Examiner.
The patient support group expects to discuss the plans when it meets with Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, in the coming weeks: “In all these respects, the establishment of a full-service operational lab, if achieved, would enable this Government to draw a line under the inadequacies of the past. We will be interested to hear of concrete evidence of progress at our meeting with the minister, but there is a lot of serious work yet to be done”.
“We must also not take the eye off the ball on assuring quality in the existing regime while that project works its way to 2022. We need assurance on sustaining standards in testing and review procedures in the interim period also,” the group added.