Questions remain about the extent of CervicalCheck’s failings

Leo Varadkar’s apology was welcome but there are many details about the scandal that are still unclear

Deceit, according to one dictionary definition, “is behaviour that is deliberately intended to make people believe something which is not true”. The synonyms offered include: “lying, fraud, cheating, deception”.

Standing solemnly in the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar apologised for many things in relation to the State's handling of the CervicalCheck controversy.

A litany of failures. Failures of leadership and management. Humiliation and disrespect shown to the women. False reassurances.

But it is one word – deceit – that may come back to haunt him.


If there was deceit, as he now contends, who was lying? Who engaged in fraud? Who cheated? Who deceived the women?

If there was deceit, what action has his Government taken to punish those involved? We hear a lot about “systems failure” when controversies such as the CervicalCheck scandal occur, but systems of themselves do not practise deceit. People do.

And if there isn’t anyone who has lied or cheated in this controversy, why is the Taoiseach blackguarding the staff of the health service? That, certainly, is the meaning taken from his remarks by those working in the screening services, according to well-informed sources.


Deceit is a word that has been used often over the past year by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in relation to this scandal. It is not to be found in any of Dr Gabriel Scally’s reports into CervicalCheck.

In contrast, Dr Scally, speaking at the launch of his main report last September, said he found “problems in each and every one of the areas” he looked at, but no evidence of conspiracy, corruption or cover-up.

Speaking in the Dáil, the Taoiseach enjoys legal privilege for his words, and so cannot be pursued legally were any HSE staff to be so aggrieved over his borrowing of the Sinn Féin leader’s choice of phrase.

It is likely, however, his assertion of deceit will be repeated many times in the years to come by lawyers taking court cases on behalf of women suing over allegedly misread CervicalCheck smear tests. If the leader of the State believes these women were cheated and lied to, why shouldn’t a judge, they will doubtless argue.

And yet, further into his otherwise commendable speech, Varadkar said what happened to so many women and families “should not have happened”.

“While every case was not negligence, every case was a lost opportunity for an earlier diagnosis and treatment.”

What is the Taoiseach saying here? Is he saying no negligence was involved in any of the hundreds of cases? In which case, how could he know? Or did he mean to say “not every case was negligence”?

Catastrophic impact

Beyond this verbal clumsiness, there was much to like about Varadkar’s speech, in particular its recognition of the catastrophic impact the failings of the screening programme had on ordinary people’s lives, not just the women tested but their parents, children, siblings and widowers.

While the attempt to begin a healing process is laudable, we still do not know how bad CervicalCheck’s failings were. The screening service let women down by not disclosing to them the results of an audit carried out after they were diagnosed with cancer. We know that, thanks to numerous reports and court cases over the past year.

Yet we are still in the dark over whether the abnormalities on women’s slides should have been detected.

“Finding discrepancies on review (in the audit) does not imply the same findings should have been made under routine conditions,” Dr Gabriel pointed out in his report last year.

Examining women’s slide history did not form part of his remit but some picture of the fallibility of tests may emerge from a forthcoming report by UK experts who have examined the tests of 1,000 Irish women.

Or maybe it won’t. The huge difficulties Opposition TDs have experienced in obtaining information on the performance of individual testing labs used by CervicalCheck is at odds with official protestations of greater openness and transparency.

Maybe, as the Taoiseach said in his speech, “some things we will never know”.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times