Harris defends repeat smear tests and calls criticism ‘crass’
Minister defends decision as 80,000 women forced to wait up to 33 weeks for results
Minister for Health Simon Harris during a Healthy Ireland Campaign event at Richmond Barracks, Inchicore, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Minister for Health Simon Harris has defended his offer of free repeat smear tests in the wake of last year’s CervicalCheck controversy and described political criticism of the decision as “crass.”
The tests, offered when the Government was under pressure to react to public anxiety around cervical screening, has contributed to almost 80,000 women being forced to wait up to 33 weeks for smear results.
Mr Harris told reporters that the offer of repeat out-of-cycle smear tests - made at the height of the health screening crisis almost a year ago - was consistent with the view of the Department of Health’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan that it was “the appropriate thing to do” in response to the public concerns.
He was responding to political scrutiny over his decision after it emerged that the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Gráinne Flannelly, warned against the move in the hours before the announcement.
Dr Flannelly expressed concern to the head of the HSE’s national screening service that the labs would not have sufficient capacity to cope with the additional tests and that general practitioners would not be able to pay for the service.
Mr Harris said that Dr Flannelly “never gave me any advice nor has she suggested that she did.” The clinical director resigned shortly after raising concerns after the minister did not express confidence in her.
The minister said that it was “very easy now a year on for everybody to be wise in hindsight” and that his offer of the repeat smears was made at “a very frightening time” and to reassure the women of Ireland.
“It is a little bit disappointing that some are choosing to play party politics with such an important issue in relation to women’s health. I think it is actually more than disappointing; it is a little bit crass,” he said.
Mr Harris said that people were forgetting that at the time Dr Flannelly raised her concerns that he, the Dáil and the women of Ireland had “lost confidence” in the management of CervicalCheck.
“It is kind of bizarre that politicians who were standing up in Dáil Éireann calling for these people to resign from their roles, leave the building and have nothing more to do with CervicalCheck are now quoting them as the founts of all wisdom,” he said.
The minister stood over the HSE’s decision to impose a recruitment ban on areas of the health service where hospital managers do not adhere to a recruitment plan and hire in the right areas.
“It is very important if we are to bring the health service in on budget whilst ensuring that we grow the numbers that there are plans,” he said.
He hoped “credible, robust plans” would be submitted in the coming days to avoid “allowing individual health managers run away with the taxpayers’ money because we know where that gets in terms of health overruns.”
Mr Harris was speaking at an announcement of a further €1 million being provided to the €5 million Healthy Ireland initiative to encourage people to “get up off the couch” to become more healthy this spring and summer as part of a new television advertising campaign.
At the launch, the 40-year-old Mr Varadkar referred to his health being tested on the Operation Transformation television programme showing him to have a “metabolic age” of 53. He said that it was “not something we should be embarrassed about” but important for people to participate in these checks.
Asked afterwards whether he could better the Taoiseach’s 34 press-ups in a minute as part of a new fitness programme, reported in weekend media, Mr Harris said he could not do more than Mr Varadkar.
“I haven’t had my metabolic age checked but I am willing to give him a run for his money on that one but I think he would win on the press-ups,” he said.