Taoiseach, Minister for Health ‘in denial’ over repeat smear test warning - Martin

Fianna Fáil leader says it is clear head of the cancer screening service had given warning

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin  demanded that Simon Harris correct the record of the House over his claims that neither he nor his officials had been advised against offering repeat smear tests. File photograph: Eric Luke

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin demanded that Simon Harris correct the record of the House over his claims that neither he nor his officials had been advised against offering repeat smear tests. File photograph: Eric Luke

 

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has accused the Taoiseach and Minister for Health of being “in denial” about claims that Simon Harris had been advised against offering free repeat smear tests.

Mr Martin cited the statement by former director of cancer screening programme CervicalCheck Dr Gráinne Flannelly to an Oireachtas committee that she had warned a senior official in the Department of Health that repeat smear tests would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme”.

In trenchant criticism of the Minister, the Fianna Fáil leader said it was clear the head of the cancer screening service had warned against offering free re-tests for women concerned when the controversy broke in spring 2018.

He said the Government was still claiming that this warning was not relayed to the Minister or his senior officials.

Mr Martin demanded that Mr Harris correct the record of the House over his claims that neither he nor his officials had been advised against offering repeat smear tests.

He told the Taoiseach: “I think your approach to the national screening Service, notwithstanding the crisis last year, lacks character and I think the Minister’s response lacks character.”

He added that “the full truth must be told about the exact series of events”.

But the Taoiseach insisted that what undermined the cancer screening programme was the non-disclosure scandal, not the Minister for Health.

The controversy erupted first when it emerged that 221 women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer were not informed of an audit that showed they had received false negative test results.

Mr Varadkar said the Fianna Fáil leader had himself castigated the cervical test service leaders in May 2018, the same officials whose cause he was now actively championing.

“You said they were ‘cold, calculating, possibly involved in illegality and conspiracy’,” the Taoiseach quoted Mr Martin as saying. He suggested that Mr Martin’s approach “lacks character” and he might want to correct the record.

Mr Varadkar said the decision was made to offer free repeat tests at a time when women were looking for the tests from their GPs and were contacting helplines, and when some doctors were calling for repeat tests. Once tests were offered the move was welcomed by medical organisations, he said.

The Taoiseach added test result delays were now running at about 15 weeks - though in some cases this was up to 33 weeks which was unacceptable. Mr Varadkar said the scheme was overall successful in reducing deaths by helping earlier diagnosis of cervical cancer.

He added that part of the current delay was due to a greater uptake in the service, and more resources were being put into the system to speed things up.

He said about 100,000 more people were screened last year but more laboratory capacity had been founded and a reduction in waiting times was expected in the next few weeks.