Taoiseach vows to seek truth over failures in cervical cancer screening tests

The Taoiseach has insisted his government is determined to establish the truth behind a deepening controversy over inaccurate cervical cancer screening tests.

Leo Varadkar again apologised to patients impacted by the wrongly interpreted smear tests and admitting their needs were not put first.

In an at times emotional address after an emergency cabinet meeting in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said the health service in Ireland should be about saving lives, not saving face.

He said the Government shared the anguish of the women who wrongly received all clear test results, even though ministers could never know the full extent of their suffering.

Mr Harris promised a package of measures (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Mr Harris promised a package of measures (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

The political crisis has already seen the boss of Ireland's Health Service Executive (HSE) Tony O'Brien quit.

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.

While screening tests are not 100% accurate and there are acknowledged risks on the possibility of incorrect results, the fact the majority of the impacted patients were not told of the outcome of the audit has prompted a wave of public anger.

Of the 209 women, 17 have since died.

Mr Varadkar said it was "totally unacceptable" that information was "concealed" from the women.

"We are determined to get to the bottom of this and restore your faith in the service that should be about saving lives and never about saving face," he said.

"It is inexcusable that something in which women put their trust has let them down so badly."

Mr Varadkar watches as Mr Harris speaks at a press conference (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Mr Varadkar watches as Mr Harris speaks at a press conference (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

After the cabinet meeting, a support package was announced for the women caught up in the controversy.

It will include financial support for treatment.

Also covered will be the cost of medicines, including experimental drugs as well as practical expenses, such as travel costs and childcare.

Bereavement counselling and other counselling services will also be provided to the families of women who have already died.

Health Minister Simon Harris announced that John Connaghan will be the new interim director of the HSE.

Mr Harris said that Mr Connaghan, a Scot, was relatively new to the HSE but has "a proud and good tradition of delivering the public health service in Scotland", adding that he would "bring fresh energy and fresh eyes".

Leo Varadkar previously served as health minister (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Leo Varadkar previously served as health minister (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

"We are very sincere about this package," said Mr Varadkar.

"It won't happen overnight, we have to start it from scratch. Everyone has individual needs and wants and it will take more time than a one size fits all process."

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.

Ministers react to the cervical smear test revelations (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)
Ministers react to the cervical smear test revelations (Lorraine O'Sullivan/PA)

Mr Varadkar appeared to become emotional when he reflected on Ms Mhic Mhathuna's evidence.

"I just don't think there are any words that anyone can say... certainly there are no words that I can say that can give her comfort at this time," he said.

"She's 37 years old, roughly my age, could be my sister, could be one of my friends.

"She has young children - it could be my nephews."

Earlier Mr Harris warned officials there will be no hiding place in the quest to find out all the facts.

Mr Harris said recent revelations had devastated the country.

"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," he said.

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

"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.

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)

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

There are a number of legal challenges similar to Ms Phelan's in the pipeline.

Mr Harris said the government is taking 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 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.

Mr 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.

On Friday, Mr Varadkar said he should have been made aware of their contents.

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.

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