Simon Harris under pressure to clarify when he knew of smear test issue

Government denies it tried to hide the need to retest 6,000 women for cervical cancer

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Minister for Health Simon Harris faces growing pressure to clarify when he learned as many as 6,000 women would need be retested for cervical cancer because their tests were not conducted within the recommended time frames.

The Department of Health on Thursday confirmed Mr Harris was first alerted to the issue in December, over a month before the matter was publicly disclosed.

The Minister’s spokeswoman denied opposition claims that the Government had hidden the issue, or had been slow in responding to it.

She said last night Mr Harris was “first informed there was a possible issue emerging in December but was also told there was a body of work yet to be done by the HSE to establish the facts around it.

“He has not been slow. He requested a report on it. He does not have the full report as requested.”

Under persistent questions from the Opposition in the Dáil on Thursday, Tánaiste Simon Coveney insisted the Government was not hiding problems in the cervical cancer screening programme controversy.

However, Mr Harris is now expected to fully disclose his knowledge and actions to the Oireachtas when he returns from paternity leave in 10 days’ time.

“We need a really detailed statement from him and a clinical lead to explain in detail what happened, why it happened and why nobody should be worried,” said Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly.

Sinn Féin spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly said the public “really need to know when did he find out about it and what did he do before it came to public attention. What is he going to do now to reassure women that this service is fit for purpose?”

Free tests

Alan Kelly of Labour described it as a “scandal upon a scandal” and criticised the Minister for not making it publicly known. “More resources are required to ensure that screening works in an optimal way and women can be sure of the process.”

The Government also categorically denied that Mr Harris’s offer of a free smear test to women last year at the time the cervical cancer controversy broke was taken against official advice.

Some 90,000 women availed of the free test, in addition to the 230,000 scheduled and routine smear tests carried out last year. It caused the waiting time for results to increase from an average of six weeks to 22 weeks by the end of 2018 and resulted in a small percentage of smear tests having to be repeated as they “expired”, having not been analysed within the required timeframe.

Separately, it has emerged that the 6,000 women who will be recalled for repeat smears are those whose smears showed up some abnormality on initial reading. Their slides were then to be tested for the HPV virus but this did not happen within the recommended timeframe for such testing.

Dr Peter McKenna, HSE director of women’s and infant health programmes, said a decision was reached by the HSE in 2015 to refer women with a middle-grade cervical smear test reading for an HPV test. The test should be carried out within 30 days of the smear being taken, but it has transpired that the laboratory was counting 30 days from when they received the tests, not 30 days from when the test was taken.

“We will have to find out how that happened. Our main concern now is to find the women in question,” he said.

The HSE was alerted to the problem last November, he said, when Quest Diagnostics Laboratories advised CervicalCheck of a “specific problem in relation to standard HPV tests that have been carried out outside of the manufacturer’s recommended timeframe since secondary HPV screening was introduced”.

Exacerbation issue

“The information is that the test is still very reliable, but we feel it is prudent to do a repeat. We’re in a position to say that the chance of a test giving an incorrect result is very small,” he said.

When asked on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland if the volume of women seeking a free cervical smear test following an announcement by the Minister for Health last year had exacerbated the problem, Dr McKenna acknowledged that might have been the case.

“But equally you could say because of it this problem came to light.”

Damien McCallion, interim director of the HSE National Screening Service, said by the end of next week the screening service would be writing to affected women, who will need to attend their GP for a second smear test.

On the offering of free smear tests to women after the controversy broke, Mr Harris’s spokeswoman said: “Simon Harris is quite clear he acted in consultation with officials and HSE in offering the free test to women. No advice was given not to proceed with this before he offered.” She also pointed out that the announcement was welcomed by opposition TDs and Senators last year.