Now 209 women affected by cervical cancer scandal

Political support drains away from HSE director general Tony O’Brien

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly has said HSE director general Tony O’Brien (pictured) “should step back with immediate effect”. He was speaking on behalf of his party when he made his comments. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The HSE on Friday identified another woman who has been affected by the cervical cancer scandal, bringing the number affected to 209.

“The work of the HSE Serious Incident Management Team to review information available has identified an additional woman that requires follow-up,” it said in a statement.

The cervical cancer test controversy arose after Limerick woman Vicky Phelan settled her action against a US laboratory, subcontracted by the CervicalCheck screening programme to assess the tests, without admission of liability for €2.5 million last week.

Ms Phelan discovered that a 2011 smear test that had initially shown no abnormalities was, three years later, found to be inaccurate. She was not told of the false test until September 2017. She is now suffering from terminal cancer.


It subsequently emerged that many other women had smear tests reviewed but were not informed of the outcome.

The HSE said on Friday: “Most women have at this stage been contacted and meetings either held or arranged to discuss the audit and the response. As some women are out of the country or not contactable, this record of contacts will be updated after May 9th.”

Of the 209 women now identified as affected, contact has been made with 196.

More than 10,000 women have contacted a helpline established by CervicalCheck amid fears over their smear tests. More than 7,000 of those women requested a call back but to date only 797 calls have been returned.

“The service provided on our information line and waiting times have improved steadily during the week, but our call team remain extremely busy, and our priority is women with specific clinical queries or a history of cervical cancer,” said the HSE.

No confidence

Political support was draining away from HSE director general Tony O’Brien on Friday night after Fianna Fáil called on him to step down.

Earlier Sinn Féin published a motion of no confidence in Mr O’Brien, which it will seek to have debated in the Dáil next week.

If the motion reaches the floor of the House - which is uncertain as Sinn Féin does not have private members’ time next week - it will force the Government to back Mr O’Brien or publicly disavow him.

In recent days Ministers have avoided expressing confidence in the HSE chief, while Opposition figures have called for him to resign or be sacked.

Ms Phelan has repeatedly called for Mr O’Brien to resign. At the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday, Mr O’Brien rejected calls from several Deputies to resign.

Dáil private members’ business on Tuesday is scheduled for a motion from the Rural Independents group of TDs, but Sinn Féin says it will seek to amend the Rural Independents’ motion with its own motion of no confidence in the HSE boss.

It is not clear if the Sinn Féin amendment will be permitted under Dáil rules. The Ceann Comhairle’s office is likely to make a ruling on its admissibility on Tuesday morning.

Senior Government figures do not want Mr O’Brien to leave his post immediately, but some say the pressure for him to depart may become overwhelming.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly has said Mr O’Brien “should step back with immediate effect”. He was speaking on behalf of his party when he made his comments.

Even if Fine Gael voted against a no confidence motion there is no guarantee the motion would be defeated. Dáil numbers suggest it is still possible the motion could be carried.

Mr O’Brien’s contract has director general of the HSE expires in July .

In the Dáil on Thursday Tánaiste Simon Coveney declined to express full support for Mr O'Brien.

“Tony O’Brien’s focus on providing as much information as possible and putting systems in place that can co-operate fully with that independent investigation is probably the best way that he can assist in this process, rather than stepping aside from it,” Mr Coveney said.

Earlier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it had been "a dreadful week" for the health service and a "culture change" was needed to reform it.

Mr Varadkar also said he was “absolutely open” to a public inquiry into the cervical screening controversy.

He said a scoping inquiry would be carried out prior to the statutory inquiry to get immediate answers. He said 180 of the 208 women diagnosed with cervical cancer who should have received an earlier intervention have now been contacted.

‘Scoping inquiry’

Mr Varadkar said he had been in touch with Ms Phelan on Friday morning and that she will be part of the scoping inquiry.

“That scoping inquiry will find out as much information as we possibly can in a matter of weeks and then we will have a statutory inquiry,” he said.

Mr Varadkar was speaking following the opening of the Springfield Academic Primary Care Centre in Tallaght on Friday morning.

In a wide-ranging address, Mr Varadkar said: “I think it’s fair to say that this week has been a dreadful week for our health service, even more so for the women who are affected”.

He said “at heart of it once again unfortunately was a failure of open disclosure by doctors and also a failure by senior management to make sure that that happened”.

Mr Varadkar said while legislation will be brought forward soon for mandatory open disclosure in serious incidents, what was required was “a culture change” in the health service.

The Taoiseach also said that an advertisement to replace Mr O’Brien will be posted within two weeks.

“Tony O’Brien’s term ends in less than 12 weeks, he has stepped back from any other interests he may have and we expect him to focus fully on this issue and resolving this issue over those couple of weeks while we find a replacement,” he said.

“We don’t want to leave a gap or lacuna at the top of the HSE, so we need him to focus on his job in putting this right over the next couple of weeks.”

It emerged on Friday that the HSE will cover the cost of a drug Ms Phelan is taking.

Ms Phelan is currently on a treatment drug, Pembrolizumab, which costs €8,300 per dosage every three weeks. Up until last week she has been paying for the drug herself, but said on Friday that the HSE were now covering the cost.

“I got a phone call to say I won’t be getting any more invoices from St Vincent’s [HOSPITAL],” Ms Phelan said on the Ray D’Arcy Show on RTÉ Radio 1. “The HSE are going to cover the cost of my drug. If I was on that drug for over a year, that’s €150,000. It’s a lot of money.”

Ms Phelan also said she received an invitation to take part in the scoping exercise on the scandal, which is to take place before the statutory inquiry. “I am happy that I am going to be involved,” she said.

“At least there will be somebody on this committee that will be sitting there representing the people.

“From everything that people know about me already, I’m not one to take things lightly. So I will be grilling them and I won’t be making it easy. So I’m glad and I’m very happy to be involved.”

Meanwhile, three laboratories involved in the cervical screening programme have given indemnities to the State in relation to three legal cases being taken by women.

The Oireachtas Health Committee was told earlier this week there were 10 cases active in relation to the cervical screening service.

It is understood the State Claims Agency has told the committee that to its knowledge the insurers of these laboratories have not settled any of the three claims to which they have provided an indemnity to the State.

Sources said the State Claims Agency had maintained that of the remaining six legal actions, the only one which had been settled was the case brought by Ms Phelan.

Following an audit last weekend, the HSE said in the case of 208 women a negative smear test result was reversed.

In total, 162 of these women - 17 of whom are now dead - were not told.

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

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