Government faces clash with committee over parallel cancer inquiry

Public Accounts Committee will continue to hold hearings on CervicalCheck controversy

The PAC’s vice-chairman, Labour TD Alan Kelly, insisted that its work would continue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The PAC’s vice-chairman, Labour TD Alan Kelly, insisted that its work would continue. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Government is on a collision course with the Public Accounts Committee over PAC plans to proceed with its own inquiries into the CervicalCheck scandal while the Government-appointed scoping inquiry investigates.

The PAC has called senior Health Service Executive officials along with the Department of Health’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan to appear before it on Thursday to answer questions about who knew what and when regarding the failure to disclose incorrect smear test results to women with cervical cancer.

Government sources have raised concerns about the committee carrying out a parallel investigation while the scoping inquiry chairman Dr Gabriel Scally, the British public health veteran, prepares an initial report next month and examines why cancer warnings were missed and why those misses were not notified to the women.

The belief in Government circles is that the Scally inquiry should be allowed to carry out its work and that the Oireachtas committee should not be allowed to run a parallel investigation or muscle in on Dr Scally’s work.

Work will continue

The PAC’s vice-chairman, Labour TD Alan Kelly, insisted that its work will continue.

“Any attempt by the Government to hide behind the scoping inquiry and not let the Public Accounts Committee, which by its name is about seeking accountability, will not be accepted or tolerated,” he said.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has said the Scally inquiry should be allowed to carry out its work and to submit an interim report next month.

“Given the sensitivity of the matters that we are dealing with, given the health and lives of women that are at the heart of this issue, that their work should be allowed to continue and that is where we are most likely to get the key facts and answers,” Mr Donohoe told RTÉ’s This Week radio programme yesterday.

Mr Kelly chaired the committee last Thursday when it emerged that 2016 memos showed senior HSE and department officials knew that the issuing of letters informing the women about clinical audits showing that previous smear tests were incorrect were being suspended in March 2016 pending legal advice.

Mounting political pressure over the memos led to the departure of HSE director general Tony O’Brien who had earlier told the committee that he was aware of the memos.

“We have to find out if we have a functioning Department of Health and a functioning Health Service Executive. These are highly critical issues. What we find out on the Public Accounts Committee will help and embellish the work of the Scally inquiry,” Mr Kelly told The Irish Times.

The department has said Dr Holohan, the Government’s most senior adviser on health, received the memos.

Answer questions

The committee has invited CervicalCheck’s programme manager John Gleeson, who wrote one of the July 2016 memos, and Dr Stephanie O’Keeffe, the HSE’s national director of health and wellbeing on whose behalf Mr Gleeson wrote the memo, to appear before it on Thursday to answer questions.

The HSE said last night that just over 4,000 women were still awaiting returned calls from the CervicalCheck helpline set up to take calls from concerned women. In the latest figures on the activity around the helpline, the HSE said that 15,753 calls have been answered by the helpline. Some 9,925 had requested call backs and, as of yesterday, 5,849 calls had been returned.

Health officials are still trying to reach six of the 209 women affected in the controversy in cases where clinical audits showed past smear test could have provided a different result.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry yesterday asked questions of Minister for Health Simon Harris about the subcontracted use in testing smears taken in the screening programme after it emerged Medlab in Sandyford, Co Dublin, sends tests to a sister company in the UK when there is backlog at its testing facility in Dublin.

“The Minister needs to clarify how exactly this works and whether there is a different criteria applied to tests carried out in the UK or whether they are all treated the same and signed off by Irish pathologists here,” he said.