Cervical cancer helpline has received more than 8,000 calls, Seanad told

Senators call for the resignation of HSE chief Tony O’Brien

Minister for Health Simon Harris  said   waiting times for calls to be answered had  reduced significantly following  the decision to  bring in 40 additional public health staff to deal with the volume of calls being received. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Health Simon Harris said waiting times for calls to be answered had reduced significantly following the decision to bring in 40 additional public health staff to deal with the volume of calls being received. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The CervicalCheck helpline has received more than 8,000 calls since it was set up to deal with the cervical cancer screening scandal, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said.

“I have been advised that waiting times for calls to be answered have reduced significantly following my decision to bring in 40 additional public health staff to deal with the volume of calls being received,’’ he added.

He told the Seanad on Thursday that, naturally, many women were now concerned about their own health following the publicity surrounding CervicalCheck.

To provide assurance, CervicalCheck would make the necessary arrangements to enable any woman who had a smear test to have a consultation with her GP, in order to determine whether she wished to have a further test without charge.

“These arrangements are being confirmed with doctors currently,’’ he added.

He said he could confirm that primary HPV screening would be introduced later this year.

Mr Harris said he wanted to reiterate his gratitude to Limerick mother of two Vicky Phelan for her courage in bringing the issue about problems with CervicalCheck to light.

Fine Gael Senator Kieran O’Donnell called on the Director General of the HSE Tony O’Brien to resign.

He said Mr O’Brien had said the scandal was a personal blow to him.

“It pales into insignificance when compared to the personal blows of the women who were victims,’’ he said.

“With a personal blow comes personal responsibility, and he needs to look into his heart on this issue.’’

Mr O’Donnell said Mr O’Brien should do the decent thing.

“What has happened here is one of the greatest scandals in the history of the State,’’ he added.

“It affects our mothers, wives and partners, sisters and daughters.’’

Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell said Mr O’Brien should “go now’’, adding he should ring the Minister on Thursday evening to say he was leaving.

“He has not done the country a service and we do not want him,’’ Mr Craughwell added.

In particular, he said, Vicky Phelan did not want him to remain in the job.

Mr O’Brien told the Oireachtas health committee on Wednesday he could not take full personal responsibility for what had happened and would not stand down. 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.

Sinn Féin Senator Rose Conway-Walsh said she could not understand why the then Government, in 2008, made the decision to outsource such an important laboratory service to the United States. She was referring to the decision to outsource the reading of smear tests in the US.

“It just does not add up,’’ she added. “Something stinks here.’’

Ms Phelan settled a High Court case last week against a US laboratory subcontracted by the CervicalCheck screening programme to assess her smear test, for €2.5 million without admission of liability.

Ms Phelan’s discovered that a 2011 smear test that had initially showed no abnormalities was, three years later, found to be inaccurate, but she did not learn of the false test until September 2017. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.

Private correspondence disclosed in her court case showed that doctors disagreed for more than a year over who was responsible for telling women with cervical cancer about the false tests.