Martin accuses Harris of ‘dumping’ on CervicalCheck team

Taoiseach says screening programme group did good job but carried out a ‘botched audit’

Michael Martin accused Simon Harris of attempting to destroy the reputation of the CervicalCheck team. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins/File

Michael Martin accused Simon Harris of attempting to destroy the reputation of the CervicalCheck team. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins/File

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended the Minister for Health after Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin accused Simon Harris of attempting to destroy the reputation of the CervicalCheck team.

Mr Varadkar said those who worked in the the cancer screening programme “did a good job” in developing the programme and saving thousands of lives.

But he said “they also made a lot of mistakes” including carrying out a “botched audit, which had significant retrospection bias and then (they) did not share information about the audit with the women affected”.

He also declined to give a date for the introduction of HPV testing, originally scheduled for the end of this year.

“The dates I was given in the past by CervicalCheck and Department of Health could not be delivered,” he said.

The Taoiseach was responding in the Dáil during Leaders’ Questions after Mr Martin sharply criticised Mr Harris over his remarks in an RTÉ radio interview.

The Fianna Fáil leader said the extent to which Mr Harris had “dumped” in that interview on a group of people who had built up the cancer screening service over 10 years was unacceptable.

Mr Martin said he had asked questions about the chief medical officer’s (CMO) support for the free test and was told that “the CMO’s advice was reflected in the Minister’s press release”.

“What kind of gobbledegook is that?” he asked. “Did the CMO recommend this or not? I don’t believe he did.”

He said he believed it was a case of “covering tracks” and “studied obfuscation”.

Mr Varadkar said it was his understanding that the CMO supported the test.

The Taoiseach also defended the free smear test offer and said it was to give reassurance to tens of thousand of women. He acknowledged that it had caused problems and there was a backlog. But this was not just because of the free screening but also because more women were attending for screening.

Mr Martin has repeatedly insisted that Mr Martin went against clinical advice to offer a free out-of-cycle smear test to thousands of women in the wake of the CervicalCheck controversy, which resulted in an additional 90,000 tests last year and a current backlog of 78,000.

Mr Martin called on the Taoiseach to confirm that the CervicalCheck team communicated its opposition to the provision of a free tests directly to the Department of Health at a high level before the decision was made.

The CervicalCheck team did exceptional work over a decade in building up the service and in saving thousands of lives, “irrespective of one’s views on the terms of the decision around the audit”.

He said “you can’t destroy the reputation and work of people who have committed to this programme for over a decade and many people are dismayed at the cavalier dismissal of the work” by Mr Harris.

The Taoiseach acknowledged that those who built CervicalCheck did a good job.

“I remember before CervicalCheck that women would present much later with cancer and with much more advanced cancer,” he said.