'No hiding place' in search for truth over cervical smear test scandal

Ireland's health minister has warned officials there will be no hiding place in the quest to find the truth around a deepening cervical smear test controversy.

Simon Harris said recent revelations that 209 cancer patients had previously received wrongly-interpreted all-clear smear results had devastated the country.

Ahead of a special cabinet meeting in Dublin to address a crisis that has already seen the boss of Ireland's health service resign, Mr Harris said: "I want to assure the public that I am equally furious about what is emerging and there will be nowhere to hide, there will be accountability."

Earlier this month it emerged that an audit by the CervicalCheck screening programme of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in earlier smear tests in 209 of the cases - with results showing no abnormalities when they should have flagged a cancer warning.

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, said the handling of the matter had been disgraceful (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, said the handling of the matter had been disgraceful (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

The fact the majority of the patients were not initially told of the outcome of the audit has prompted a wave of public anger. Of the 209 women, 17 have since died.

The controversy was triggered by the case of Vicky Phelan, a terminally ill mother whose legal battle cast light on the issue.

Last month, Ms Phelan, a 43-year-old mother-of-two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action for 2.5 million euro after being incorrectly told in 2011 that her smear test had given a negative result for cancer.

In 2014, she was diagnosed with cancer but only told of the false negative last September.

Others impacted have also come forward to tell powerful stories.

Emma Mhic Mhathuna, 37, from Co Kerry, revealed on Thursday that she had now been diagnosed with terminal cancer, five years after being told her smear tests were normal.

Stephen Teap, from Co Cork, has expressed his anger that his wife Irene died without ever knowing that her smear tests had been wrongly interpreted.

Health Service Executive chief Tony O'Brien has stepped down amid the deepening controversy (Niall Carson/PA)
Health Service Executive chief Tony O'Brien has stepped down amid the deepening controversy (Niall Carson/PA)

"I think the whole country is devastated, shocked, upset and hurt," said Mr Harris.

"People like Emma and Vicky, people like Stephen Teap and others who have told their story, they really have touched a nerve with all of us.

"But what they need is not platitudes, they need actions, and I am determined we are going to deliver those actions."

"The Cabinet is holding a special meeting at Government Buildings in Dublin on Friday to agree a package of measures, such as drug and treatment costs, to support those affected by the errors.

It comes hours after Health Service Executive (HSE) director general Tony O'Brien quit.

Mr Harris said the Government needed to demonstrate that it cared about the impacted women and the next of kin of those patients who have since died.

There are 10 legal challenges similar to Ms Phelan's in the pipeline. Mr Harris said he would take steps to ensure those women would not have to go to court to get answers.

"I don't want any of them to go to court," he said.

Mr Harris said he does not want people affected to have to go to court in order to find the truth (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Mr Harris said he does not want people affected to have to go to court in order to find the truth (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

The minister said he would appoint a new director general of the HSE later on Friday and also move next week to introduce more accountability within the organisation.

"There is no place to hide here, all of the facts need to be established and all of the facts will be established," he said.

"There will be and must accountability and answers here for the women of Ireland and I am absolutely determined in relation to that."

Mr O'Brien resigned hours after it emerged that an internal HSE briefing note that flagged potential errors in screening tests in 2016 stressed the need for a media strategy to respond to stories of women whose cancer diagnosis was missed.

The memo to HSE bosses from Ireland's National Screening Service (NSS) also advised a "pause" in the process of communicating to clinicians the findings of the audit of smear test results belonging to women who were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.

The HSE forwarded three 2016 memos to the Irish parliament's Public Accounts Committee on Thursday as members probed the growing controversy around the misinterpreted smear tests.

Earlier on Friday, Regina Doherty, Ireland's Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, branded the language in the notes "absolutely outrageous" and "disgusting".

She said the controversy marked a watershed moment for the management of the HSE.

"The management of the services in this country, you would be hard pushed to find anybody who says they have trust or confidence in them," she told RTE.

"And that needs to change, and we need to change that as a government right now on behalf of the Irish people."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was health minister when the first memo was sent to HSE chiefs.

The Department of Health confirmed on Thursday night that the memos were shared with the department.

However, a spokesman said they were only relayed to certain officials and none were brought to the attention of any serving health minister.

Micheal Martin, the leader of main opposition party Fianna Fail, said the response to the crisis had been "shocking". The Fine Gael-led government relies on a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail to stay in power.

When pressed whether his party was now prepared to withdraw that support, Mr Martin said there was a need to establish the facts first.

"We need to find out the truth," he told RTE.

"I am not going to make judgment calls without the truth, I think that's a very basic requirement and accountability, yes, but we need to know the truth."

He added: "The response to the crisis has been shocking in my view, it has been very badly managed."

UK health expert Dr Gabriel Scally has been commissioned by the Irish government to lead an inquiry into the misinterpretation of the cancer tests.

A planned away day Cabinet meeting that had been scheduled for Friday has been postponed.

The Cabinet is instead meeting in Dublin as Mr Varadkar and Mr Harris continue to deal with the controversy.

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