Minister for Health under pressure to correct Dáil record
Harris claims he was not informed of concerns over free tests by CervicalCheck director
Minister for Health, Simon Harris: A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said he would appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Health in the coming days. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Pressure is growing on Minister for Health Simon Harris to correct the record of the Dáil after he said neither he nor his officials were warned not to proceed with a decision to offer free out-of-cycle smear tests to women.
Nearly 80,000 women are waiting up to 33 weeks to receive the results of their smear tests partly because of the decision to offer the free smear tests in the wake of the CervicalCheck controversy.
The former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Gráinne Flannelly, told the Oireachtas Committee on Health, in a written submission, that in the hours before the decision was announced by Mr Harris on April 28th, 2018, she raised concerns that such a move would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme”. She also expressed concern that laboratories would not be able to cope with the increased demand.
Shortly after lunchtime that day, she said she passed on a number of serious concerns to a senior official in the HSE who then spoke to an unnamed official in the Department of Health. The department has refused to reveal the identity of this individual.
The decision was made to proceed “in any case” shortly after. At 5.13pm that evening, Mr Harris put a message on Twitter to say that free smear tests would be offered.
Mr Harris has said that he was not informed of these concerns before he made the decision to proceed with his plan.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said it was clear that Dr Flannelly had provided her advice before the Minister announced the decision. He said the new information from Dr Flannelly suggested he had misled the Dáil for a second time.
Earlier this year, Mr Harris was forced to correct the record of the Dáil in relation to his remarks on the national children’s hospital.
Mr Donnelly said Mr Harris needed to appear before a special sitting of the Dáil to answer questions on the timeline of events.
Fianna Fáil said it also wanted to see the relevant phone records.
“Given the seriousness of the situation – that the decision to offer the out-of-cycle test, which has led to eight-month delays for women and the delay in launching the HPV test, was taken against clinical advice – there needs to be a Dáil questions and answers session with Minister Harris,” Mr Donnelly said.
“Given that the Minister disputes the timing of important phone calls made, we would also like to see the relevant phone records, showing exactly when the calls were made.”
A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said he would appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Health in the coming days.
“As the Taoiseach said today, the Minister has been before the House on a number of occasions in respect of this issue. He has also been before the health committee. He is due before the committee again next week on a range of issues. The facts and the position regarding the out-of-cycle smear remain the same.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated on Wednesday that if a correction of the record was needed, then it would be forthcoming. “Certainly, if it needs to be corrected, the Minister will do that.”
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin accused the Taoiseach and Minister for Health of being “in denial” about the claims.
In trenchant criticism of Mr Harris, the Fianna Fáil leader said it was clear the head of the cancer screening service had warned against offering free re-tests for women concerned when the controversy broke in spring 2018.
He said the Government was still claiming that this warning was not relayed to the Minister or his senior officials.
Mr Martin demanded that Mr Harris correct the record of the House.
He told the Taoiseach: “I think your approach to the national screening service, notwithstanding the crisis last year, lacks character and I think the Minister’s response lacks character.”
He added that “the full truth must be told about the exact series of events”.
Mr Varadkar said that what undermined the cancer screening programme was the non-disclosure scandal, not the Minister for Health.
The controversy erupted first when it emerged that 221 women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer were not informed of an audit that showed they had received false negative test results.
The Taoiseach said the Fianna Fáil leader had himself castigated the cervical test service leaders in May 2018, the same officials whose cause he was now actively championing.
“You said they were ‘cold, calculating, possibly involved in illegality and conspiracy’,” the Taoiseach quoted Mr Martin as saying. He suggested that Mr Martin’s approach “lacks character” and he might want to correct the record.