Taoiseach says ‘right heads’ have to roll over CervicalCheck

Varadkar effectively rules out sacking Tony O’Brien as the HSE director general

Leo Varadkar: ‘It may be the case that more heads may roll in the future but it is important that it is the right heads’. Photograph: Bloomberg

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has effectively ruled out sacking Health Service Executive director general Tony O'Brien over the cervical cancer screening controversy.

He told the Dáil on Tuesday that “more heads may roll in the future but it is important that it is the right heads”. He said that both the CervicalCheck screening programme clinical director and its manager had stood aside from their positions since the controversy erupted.

Mr Varadkar also said that 11,000 calls were made to the helpline set up to deal with the CervicalCheck controversy, and 7,678 women have requested call-backs.

He told Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that 2,686 calls had been returned but that before each call is returned a doctor or nurse had to check files and histories and the returned call could take “20, 30 or 40 minutes”.


Mr Martin said it was “arguable the system had time to prepare” and he believed the primary focus should have been on the women at higher risk. He said he believed the Government was “making it up as you go along”.

The Taoiseach also told the Dáil the scoping inquiry into CervicalCheck had commenced and was being led by Prof Gabriel Scally.

During leaders’ questions, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald renewed her call for the Taoiseach to remove Mr O’Brien from his post.

She said Mr Varadkar had pledged to listen to women affected by this controversy, that they would be “front and centre”.


“Tony O’Brien cannot stay on,” she said. He was “untouchable” despite “patently failing in his duties”. He was part of the problem not the solution, she said.

But Mr Varadkar insisted “the Government is putting the interests of the women affected and their families first”.

He said there should not be a focus on “seeking heads” but Ms McDonald said “this is not just about seeking heads but about seeking accountability”.

The Taoiseach said it was not right for any political party or leader “to appoint themselves as the spokesperson for a diverse group of women and families”.

He said “it may be the case that more heads may roll in the future but it is important that it is the right heads,” and he insisted Mr O’Brien should spend the remaining eight weeks of his term as HSE director general focused on establishing the facts of the CervicalCheck crisis.

Mr Martin said “GPs have yet to be properly advised and resourced and prepared for this crisis”, adding that the helpline is way behind and was a “rushed initiative, not properly resourced at all”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin expressed concern that 14 per cent of smear tests were mistakenly read and were not mistakes due to limitations in the screening itself.

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger questioned the outsourcing of screening to the US and a company "known to cut corners".

The Taoiseach said this was all part of why the scoping inquiry was established and it should be allowed to do its work.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times