Sunday 22 September 2019

Health minister in denial over free smear tests, says Fianna Fail leader

Former clinical director of CervicalCheck Dr Grainne Flannelly said she raised concerns about the out-of-cycle smear tests with senior officials.

Leo Varadkar was accused of being in denial (Brian Lawless/PA)
Leo Varadkar was accused of being in denial (Brian Lawless/PA)

By Cate McCurry, Press Association

The leader of Ireland’s main opposition party has accused the Health Minister of not being upfront over claims he was advised against offering a free cervical smear test.

It comes after the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr Grainne Flannelly, said she raised concerns about the out-of-cycle smear tests with senior officials.

It emerged on Tuesday that Dr Flannelly said she warned that repeat smear tests would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme” before the Health Minister Simon Harris announced the free tests in April last year.

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 Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

Speaking in the Dail, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said: “You (Taoiseach Leo Varadkar) and the minister (Mr Harris) have been in denial and the minister has not been upfront with this House and he needs to correct the record.

“Are you denying this sequence of events as outlined by Dr Grainne Flannelly?

“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.”

Speaking during leaders’ questions, Mr Varadkar said: “The reality was that the situation at the time was there was a lot of women who were really concerned about the accuracy of their smear tests.

“They were attending their GPs looking for repeat smear tests, they were contacting the helpline looking for repeat smear tests.

“There were some doctors calling for repeat smear tests to be allowed.

“When it was done it was welcomed by the opposition and it was agreed by the INMO (Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation).

“This just wasn’t a decision made by the Minister for Health.”

The whole decision reeked of incompetence, of panic and had no public health criteria to justify it and no advice from anyone. It was the wrong decision Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

Mr Martin said the decision by the minister to offer free smear tests has “damaged” the programme and put it under “enormous strain”.

“The whole decision reeked of incompetence, of panic and had no public health criteria to justify it and no advice from anyone. It was the wrong decision,” he added.

“Dr Flannelly immediately advised against it.

“This contradicts the assertions to this House by the minister, who has said that ‘neither I nor my officials were advised in advance of this decision’.

“We now know that 79,500 women are waiting for results and the backlog is getting worse as a result of that decision.

There are tens of thousands of women who are waiting far too long to hear the result of their smear test and that's causing anxiety and worry Leo Varadkar

“The introduction of the new HPV test, which would be far more precise, has been indefinitely delayed.

“There are two element to this – the programme has been damaged and it’s an illustration of a very poor decision that can be damaging to the public. The truth needs to be told and questions needs to be answered comprehensively.”

The Taoiseach said that while the backlog in smear test results was significant, the clinical risk was minimal.

“There are tens of thousands of women who are waiting far too long to hear the result of their smear test and that’s causing anxiety and worry.

“It’s a big problem and one we need to get on top of.

“Roughly 100,00 more smear tests were carried out last year than in the previous year and that was down to two factors – the fact that an out-of-cycle test was offered but as well as that there was an increase in the uptake of women of cervical screening.

“So it wasn’t solely down to the out-of-cycle smear test.”

Speaking outside the chamber, Health Minister Simon Harris stood by his position that he was not advised against offering repeat smear tests.

“I never received any contrary advice in relation to the provision of free repeat smear tests so I’m very happy to reiterate that point,” he told reporters.

Mr Harris added: “It is clear that after the decision was made that some in the cervical check programme did express some concerns in relation to the operationalising of it.”

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