Screening services should not be paused after High Court ruling - Harris

Doctors concerned over ‘absolute confidence’ expectation following Ruth Morrissey case

Screening services should not be "paused" on foot of the High Court ruling in the case of terminally-ill Limerick woman Ruth Morrissey who sued over her CervicalCheck smear tests, the Minister for Health has said.

Simon Harris called for "cool and calm heads" and said the Attorney General Seamus Woulfe should be allowed to do his job and consider the judgement of Mr Justice Kevin Cross last week.

He said if there was a need for the State to seek legal clarity on how the court’s decision affected the health service, this should not be done in any way that adversely affected Ms Morrissey.

“I want to see a way that it can be de-coupled where actually Ruth Morrissey can be paid the damages and allowed to spend time with her family as she wishes to do,” he told reporters at a nurses’ conference in Co Meath.


Senior health service staff this week proposed halting the State’s four screening programmes until the implications of the judgment were clarified.

Dr Peter McKenna, director of the HSE women and infant programme, told The Irish Times “the suggestion was seriously made by serious people and there was serious discussion about it”.

Mr Harris said the Government was “absolutely intending” to continue the screening programmes.

All clear

However, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons all released statements expressing their unease at the judge’s comments that screeners should not give the all clear unless they have “absolute confidence” that a sample is clear.

Mr Harris said: “It is very difficult to have ‘absolute confidence’ when it comes to health as there are judgement calls made. But equally it is important that we do not pick one or two words or a sentence out of a judgement without getting the Attorney General to give his view.”

Prof Mary Hogan, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, said recent events had highlighted the "limitations of screening" but that the college was "committed to supporting these essential services".

“A degree of uncertainty is inherent in all medical testing and medical professionals balance all elements of this uncertainty on a daily basis for the benefit of the patient,” she said

“We are extremely concerned that if all false negative screening tests, which we know are expected in all screening programmes, are deemed as a breach of care within this legal system, that this will seriously undermine and potentially negatively impact the viability of all screening programmes.”

Cian O’Carroll, solicitor for Ms Morrissey, said he hoped Quest Diagnostics' appeal of the ruling “can be dealt with quickly and then there can be certainty for Ruth and Paul Morrissey”.


He also hoped it would “put an end to what the judge described as ‘ill informed and hysterical commentary’ which has been going on for the last week as his judgement has been misrepresented by various people in the medical profession and the HSE”.

Mr O’Carroll queried why Dr McKenna had raised the possibility of the screening programme collapsing and asked why these arguments were being made in the media rather than in court.

“In court today judge said there as nothing new in his judgement, the backbone is the factual test which is then put into the legal test within the UK since 1999. The legal test in Ireland remains, the Dunne test which was established by the Supreme Court of Ireland in 1989, 30 years ago,” he told RTÉ’s News at One.

“The absolute confidence test does not carry on through the entire medical system, it doesn’t apply to other areas, it applies to this one discrete area, it does not threaten the entire screening programme...”

Patrick  Logue

Patrick Logue

Patrick Logue is Digital Editor of The Irish Times

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times