HSE’s Tony O’Brien declines to step down over CervicalCheck controversy

Outgoing head of health service says he will spend remaining time in job addressing failings

The director-general of the Health Service Executive, Tony O’Brien, has said he would not stand down from his role over the CervicalCheck controversy.

He told the Oireachtas health committee on Wednesday he could not take full personal responsibility for what had happened.

“As the head of the organisation I have to recognise that those who cocked up, to use the Taoiseach’s phrase, were in that organisation but I didn’t personally make that cock-up so I can’t take full responsibility for it,” he said.

He said he would devote his remaining period in office to addressing failings in the cervical screening programme. Mr O’Brien is scheduled to leave the HSE in the summer.


Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell asked Mr O'Brien if he felt he should see out the remainder of his contract.

“Yes. I have already indicated that I intend to use the remainder of my time to focus very specifically on this issue and that is what I intend to do,” he said.

Ms O’Connell replied: “With respect, it’s a pity you didn’t focus on it before now.”

The committee was told there are now 10 “active” legal claims, at varying stages, against the CervicalCheck programme.

Earlier, Mr O’Brien said two of the 17 women who died after their smear tests were reviewed were told of the results before their death.

He told the committee that, as he started his career in the public service in the BreastCheck programme, the current controversies had come as a “personal blow”.

Ms O’Connell responded: “I would like to make it clear to you today that this is not about you. You are the last person this is about.”

Cases reviewed

A HSE national director has been appointed to oversee the screening programme from Thursday.

It emerged on Tuesday night that more than 1,500 women who had developed cervical cancer did not have their cases reviewed by the CervicalCheck programme.

While 3,000 women had been diagnosed with the condition since 2008, just 1,482 of these cases were notified to CervicalCheck. A further 1,518 were not, and a full audit has been ordered by Minister for Health Simon Harris.

However, Dr Peter McKenna, clinical director of the National Women and Infants Programme, told the committee he believed there would be fewer women affected in the second grouping.

“I base that on the fact that the women in [that] cohort are more likely to be older and not have gone through the screening programme and will have presented directly to their general practitioners,” he said.

John Gleeson, programme manager of CervicalCheck, said the National Cancer Registry, which compiles data on cancer cases, was a separate statutory body and while CervicalCheck shared its data with it, this did not work the other way around.

Various difficulties

Mr O’Brien said efforts to decipher exactly how many women had participated in CervicalCheck were ongoing.

The committee heard that of the 208 identified women, 172 have been contacted but that there had been various difficulties in contacting others.

Fianna Fáil's Stephen Donnelly was told any additional women affected would be contacted as quickly as possible.

Mr Donnelly also raised the issue that women who were concerned and fearful had been experiencing difficulty in getting through to the 1-800 helpline or securing follow-up calls.

HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said more staff had been available to answer calls but that each one could last up to 25 minutes.

Labour's Alan Kelly said the public view was that the controversy was either "one big massive cover-up" or one of the largest examples of incompetence in the history of Irish healthcare management.

“It’s one or the other because the issues here are so large and are frightening so many people across the country,” he said.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times