Ireland’s cervical cancer samples still being screened abroad

Only screening lab here, at the Coombe hospital, stopped processing samples last year after cyberattack

All cervical cancer samples from Irish women are being sent abroad for screening, despite promises in the aftermath of the CervicalCheck controversy to beef up lab capacity at home.

The only Irish cervical screening lab, at the Coombe hospital in Dublin, stopped processing samples last December when the hospital suffered a cyberattack, the HSE has confirmed.

Overall hospital operations resumed, but the processing of cervical screening samples has remained paused for six months and the HSE did not say when it will restart.

The hiatus has led to fears among staff over the future of cervical screening at the Coombe, despite the fact that a €20 million new national cervical screening laboratory is being built there.


The HSE identified the main risk to the success of the lab as a shortage of consultant cytopathologists but said it is developing plans to address staffing problems “in the medium- and long-term”.


Traditionally, the Coombe has processed about 30,000 samples a year, about 10 per cent of the total number of samples taken from women. The rest have been outsourced to private labs overseas. At present, Quest Diagnostics in the US is processing all Irish samples, within the target time of four weeks.

The HSE said Quest would continue to process samples until a resumption of service from the Coombe lab took place.

In 2018, it emerged some women diagnosed with cervical cancer were not told their previous smear tests had been reviewed, often with a different result.

Apologising in October 2019 to victims of the CervicalCheck controversy, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the new lab would "bring more testing back to Ireland".

Arising from an official report into the controversy, the HSE committed to developing a national screening lab at the Coombe. The four-storey lab will be completed by the end of June and operational in the third quarter of the year, it said.

The lab currently employs 26 staff and there are plans to recruit more, but the HSE said it will take “a number of years” to address workforce capacity issues.

On Monday morning, Minister for Donnelly Stephen Donnelly said he was "not happy" about the pause in cervical screening in the Coombe this year. "We need to make sure that these samples are being screened in Ireland. That's what the government is committed to, and that's what needs to happen."

Asked whether the new screening laboratory at the Coombe would be ready as scheduled in June, Mr Donnelly said he was awaiting an update from the HSE. The new lab was an urgent Government priority and a commitment has been given that samples will be processed in Ireland.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.