Cervical cancer scandal: Coveney says State must learn from ‘tragic lesson’

Simon Harris says he would like to see Irish laboratories screening smear tests

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the health service should be about saving lives and not saving face. Photograph: Collins

The State needs to learn from the “tragic lesson” of the cervical cancer revelations in order to ensure that women will always be “the first to know” information about their health, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said on Saturday.

Mr Coveney insisted nobody was above accountability and said he agreed with remarks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the health service should be about saving lives and not saving face.

However, he expressed unease at a question by a reporter which suggested that the HSE and the Government had blood on their hands regarding the cervical smear controversy. He said it was not a “responsible” question to ask.

Last night Emma Mhic Mhathúna, a mother of five who is one of scores of Irish women who were wrongly told they had normal smear tests and now has terminal cancer said “they [the Government] have cost me my life. I shouldn’t be dying. I’m dying because they tried to cut corners and they just didn’t listen.


“We have said that State needs to respond to the tragic stories that have enfolded in the last two weeks. We will do that. We will learn lessons. We will hold people to account. We will restructure the HSE if necessary,” Mr Harris said.

He stressed that the first priority for the Government is to protect the impacted women and their families and to support them in every way possible.

Full accountability

“Then we have to move on to full accountability and to making sure we put structures in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Earlier Minister for Health Simon Harris said he would like to see Irish labs screen smear tests as long as they have the capacity to test samples.

He said he did not believe the lab in Texas where Vicky Phelan’s screening was carried out is being used to screen Irish smear tests anymore. Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty confirmed later on Saturday that the Texas lab was no longer screening tests from Irish women.

Minister for Health Simon Harris speaking to the media on the CervicalCheck scandal in Government Buildings on Friday. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

The labs that are used are the Coombe hospital in Dublin, MedLab Pathology in Sandyford and Quest Diagnostics in New Jersey.

Following a High Court case taken by Ms Phelan, it emerged that scores of women with cervical cancer were not told that negative smear test results they had received were in fact inaccurate and the revised test results were kept from them for years.


The Government believes that further “accountability” will be needed in response to the current cervical cancer screening crisis despite the departure of a number of senior health figures.

Announcing a package of measures aimed at assisting the women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal on Friday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris said nobody was immune from being held to account.

Mr Harris said nobody, including officials within his own department, the HSE and other agencies, would be spared. “There are other people who work in the public service and civil service, in jobs that are also well remunerated that also have accountability,” he said.

Responding to the announcement of the Government’s package, Ms Phelan said women needed help immediately.

“There are women out there who it is going to take a number of weeks if not months to get money,” she told RTÉ radio news. “They need help now.”

Meanwhile, the CervicalCheck helpline has received over 15,480 calls to date. The HSE said there have been 9,766 call-back requests, while as of Friday, 5,471 of those callers have received a return call. The average waiting time was 11 seconds, it said. Some 4,295 callers are awaiting a return call.

“Calls are being returned to women following a careful exercise of checking records, checking data quality and assigning calls to health professionals,” the HSE said.