Simon Harris accused of misleading Dáil over cervical cancer claim

Two-thirds of 80,000 backlog of tests due to decision to offer free out-of-cycle smears

Fianna Fáil TD Stephen  Donnelly told the Oireachtas health committee the information from Dr Grainne Flannelly suggested Minister for Health Simon Harris had misled the Dáil for a second time. Photograph: Eric Luke

Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly told the Oireachtas health committee the information from Dr Grainne Flannelly suggested Minister for Health Simon Harris had misled the Dáil for a second time. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has been accused of misleading the Dáil over his claim he received no contrary advice before offering free out-of-cycle cervical cancer smear tests last year.

New information from CervicalCheck’s former clinical director Dr Gráinne Flannelly directly contradicts Mr Harris’s assertions in the Dáil, according to Fianna Fail health spokesman Stephen Donnelly.

Mr Donnelly told the Oireachtas health committee the 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.

Dr Flannelly warned senior officials in the HSE not to offer free out-of-cycle repeat smears to women because it would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme”, according to a briefing note she has submitted to the committee.

Dr Flannelly stepped down on April 28th, 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the smear test controversy.

Shortly before, 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 decision was made to proceed “in any case” shortly after.

Mr Donnelly sad it was clear Dr Flannelly had provided her advice before the Minister announced the decision to provide free out of cycle tests, he said. Her advice also predicted this measure would fundamentally undermine the programme, which is what happened.

HSE officials at the committee stressed they were not in post at the time of the decision, but emphasised the background of anxiety among women that existed at the time.

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said there was a huge amount of public anxiety about the programme at the time as well as misunderstanding and misinformation about it. It was “reasonable” to judge the decision in the context in which it happened at the time.

The new clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr Lorraine Doherty, said the service was in crisis, and the psychological benefit of such decisions had also to be taken into account.

Sinn Féin health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly pointed out that Department of Health secretary general Jim Breslin had told the committee in February Mr Harris did not have advice to the contrary when he made the decision.

“Clearly, the advice didn’t get to the right person or it did and we were misled,” she said.

Interim national director of the screening service Damien McCallion said about two-thirds of the 80,000 backlog of tests was attributable to the decision to offer free out-of-cycle smears, and one-third was down to “new women” seeking screening last year.

He said there had been significant improvement in the turnaround times for processing slides at two of the three labs used by the programme. In the Coombe hospital, the turnaround was three weeks and with Quest Diagnostics, it was seven weeks. However, with Medlab Pathology, which processes 45 per cent of slides, it was 33 weeks.

Mr McCallion said officials had “trawled the world” to source additional capacity and was in the middle of “complex negotiations to nail this down”.