Decision to offer free smears done in good faith, says Taoiseach

FF leader: ’Politics doesn’t make for good clinical decisions’

Leo Varadkar said that sometimes decisions were taken ‘often from the heart rather than the head’. Photograph:  Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Leo Varadkar said that sometimes decisions were taken ‘often from the heart rather than the head’. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted that the decision to offer free smear tests to reassure women in the wake of the CervicalCheck controversy was done in good faith.

Mr Varadkar said that sometimes decisions were taken “often from the heart rather than the head”, but while some doctors warned that a backlog would arise others backed the move to allow free re-testing.

He also rounded on Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty when he referred to comments by former HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien criticising the decision.

Mr Varadkar said it was curious to hear Sinn Fein quoting Mr O’Brien “as part of an attack on the current Minister for Health when your last vote of no confidence was on Tony O’Brien who you thought a few months ago was unfit for office.

“But now you’re using his words to pursue the next head.”

Answering leaders’ questions in the Dáil Mr Varadkar said the chief medical officer supported re-testing and the IMO (Irish Medical Organisation) welcomed it

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called for the Government to acknowledged that the decision to offer the free re-testing was wrong, that there was “no clinical rationale” for it and the huge backlog of tests was “shocking”.

The move had cost €10 million that would have been better used elsewhere, he said. Mr Martin was speaking as the health committee dealt with the CervicalCheck controversy which revealed that 78,000 women were waiting up to 28 weeks for results and it was taking laboratories 93 days to report on smear tests.

There were 370,000 tests last year, up from 280,000 he said.

“Only the candid acknowledgement that this was the wrong decision” would now suffice, he said claiming the offer was a “knee-jerk reaction” by Minister for Health Simon Harris.

But when Mr Varadkar said that decisions were made “often from the heart rather than the head”, Mr Martin told him “politics doesn’t make (for) good clinical decision making’

He said Department of Health officials did not recommend the re-testing but Mr Harris intervened and insisted that “they supported it”. The Fianna Fail leader said some in CervicalCheck were “appalled” by the decision.

Mr Martin added that because of the cost and the delays nobody could now give a commitment if the proposed HPV vaccine would start this year.

The Taoiseach said cervical screening saves lives and the incidence of deaths from cervical cancer has fallen.

He admitted that tests at best took four to six weeks for results but were now taking four to six months.

But “we are doing everything we can to address the backlog” including extra staff and overtime. He said improvements were being made and waiting times would reduce and they would get back to four to six weeks for results.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said the health service was now in “absolute crisis” on the Taoiseach’s and Minister for Health’s watch.

He said the Minister’s apology “is not going to cut it. This Minister is out of his depth and not up to the job.”

The Taoiseach however claimed that Mr Doherty did not really care about the health service but was just it as a “stick to beat the Government with”.

Mr Doherty said it was “our wives, our sisters, our mothers” who were affected by the crisis “so don’t lecture me about concern for people we love”.

The Taoiseach said there were the same health difficulties in Northern Ireland as in the State but there was no executive and no minister for health.

He accused Sinn Féin of “walking away from your responsibility” and that while they had no minister in the North “you are trying to take away ours and we won’t let that happen”.