Daniel McConnell: We thought we were shock-proof — this proves us wrong

Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s story started off a day during which the HSE boss made jaw-dropping revelations, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Daniel McConnell: We thought we were shock-proof — this proves us wrong

Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s story started off a day during which the HSE boss made jaw-dropping revelations, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

We thought we could not be shocked anymore. So many times in the past we have heard horror stories about failures in our health system.

But for the hundreds of thousands of people who listened to Morning Ireland yesterday, that is exactly what happened.

In our kitchens, in our cars, or on the bus and train to work, we listened as Emma Mhic Mhathúna, a terminally ill mother of five, gave her harrowing account of how her smear test was mis-diagnosed.

“I don’t even know if my little baby is going to remember me. This isn’t fair. And no amount of money can replace this,” she said as she fought back her tears.

The poor telephone made you strain to hear her words and in a way made those words all the more powerful.

In the Dáil, her interview dominated Leaders’ Questions.

Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary appeared to become emotional when he referred to the interview.

He pleaded with Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to end the defending of the indefensible and to deliver the accountability.

“The time for defiant defence is over, the time to defend the realm is over. Please stop,” said Calleary.

“Please stop as a Government and listen, but more importantly, hear the story of Emma, of Vicky Phelan, Irene Teap, the deceased women, and all those women who are currently going through this journey.

“Emma’s is only one story in an ocean of anguish. I ask the minister to provide the House with his thoughts as to whether all of these women have been failed by the State. Does he believe there should be immediate accountability?”

There were fresh calls for Tony O’Brien, the embattled director general of the HSE to resign.

O’Brien was in the building facing a grilling from a most displeased public accounts committee.

O’Brien for the second consecutive day rejected calls for him to resign immediately. He went toe to toe with Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry, accusing the Sligo TD of spreading “hysteria”.

Under questioning, O’Brien made reference to a memo dating back to 2016 warning him that there may be a problem relating to the cervical smear test programme.

He did say at that stage that what was made known to him did not cause “alarm bells to go off”.

He offered to make the memo available to the committee, which he did a few hours later.

When it landed, it was a bombshell.

Because it turned out that it wasn’t one memo but in fact three which were sent by the National Screening Service to O’Brien between March and July 2016.

Reading the eight-page document, one cannot be anything but struck by the focus of the memo.

A memo of containment aimed at preserving the entity of the HSE ahead of the needs of the women involved, some of whom, like Emma and Vicky, are terminally ill.

The tone of the memos are dominated by the potential media fall-out if and when the scandal would become public.

We know O’Brien knew from early 2016 that a firestorm was brewing and that a reactive media strategy was being devised.

“A communications protocol has been prepared for consulting clinicians to address their questions,” states the memo.

But most alarming, the memo advises that communications to the doctors of patients cease until the legal advice returns.

“Next steps: Pause all letters; await advice of solicitors; decide on the order and volume of dispatch to mitigate any potential risks and continue to prepare reactive communications response for a media headline that ‘screening did not diagnose my cancer’,” it states.

Not one mention of telling the women affected.

Not one.

The memo and its contents was rounded upon by angry members of the committee who branded it an illustration of a situation whereby “containment and looking after the house” took priority over the needs of vulnerable and maltreated women.

O’Brien has now stepped down from the HSE, but what has yet to end is the culture over which O’Brien has presided.

The sort of culture which has been at the heart of this scandal. The sort of culture which forced Vicky Phelan to the High Court to get justice.

The question has to be asked that when women are dying because of such colossal failures, just what do people have to do to be sacked in our public service?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said more heads will probably roll before all of this is over.

Yet, does that include his own Health Minister, Simon Harris, who has either been kept in the dark or did know and didn’t act swiftly enough to deal with it?

Either way he has questions to answer.

Just when we thought we couldn’t be shocked anymore, a day like yesterday occurs.

It would make you sick.

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