‘Minister should have factored in Jade Goody effect before offering free smears’
Sinn Fein said the surge in women coming forward for cervical cancer checks was ‘entirely predictable’.
Increased demand for cervical smears after Jade Goody’s death should have alerted the Government to the likely impact of offering free tests in Ireland, the Dail has heard.
Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly said offering the free out of cycle tests in the wake of the CervicalCheck controversy was the “right thing to do” but she criticised Health Minister Simon Harris for failing to ensure the capacity was in place to meet the demand.
The Dublin Fingal TD said intense focus on smear testing after last year’s high-profile health crisis had parallels with the public reaction after reality TV star Goody was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. The mother-of-two died the following year at the age of 27.
Minister Harris offered free smear tests last year amid the fallout from the controversy around the CervicalCheck national cervical screening programme, which saw more than 220 women who went on to develop cancer receive misreported smear tests indicating a clear result.
The move prompted an extra 90,000 women to come forward for testing last year.
HSE officials told the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday that there was currently a backlog of 78,000 smear tests, with reports taking up to 27 weeks to process.
During leaders’ questions in the Dail, Ms O’Reilly told Tanaiste Simon Coveney that the Government should have been better prepared for a spike in demand.
“I happen to believe that offering free tests to women who wanted them given the calamity that we witnessed last year in respect of CervicalCheck was the right thing to do,” she said.
“But the minister should have ensured that the capacity was there to deliver on that and it is patently clear now that he did not do that.
“It is yet another shocking example of the shambles of a system that this minister presides over and it is further evidence that he is not up to the job of leading our health service.”
Ms O’Reilly said the argument that the department was unable to predict the level of increased demand was “absolute nonsense”.
“This is a relatively recent scandal and I’m sure you’ll recall the public outcry and interest in this subject at the time, so it is little wonder that 90,000 women availed of the offer of a free repeat test,” she said.
“We all know now about the Jade Goody effect which saw an increase in 2009 of women seeking tests in the wake of the death of this young woman.
“It’s no wonder that it happened here, it’s entirely predictable that it would happen here but what we got instead was a soundbite but no work had been done in advance of that.”
Mr Coveney acknowledged that the CervicalCheck programme “doesn’t need another controversy”.
“It has been a real challenge for the Government, for the Department of Health, for the HSE to deal with what was an extraordinary scandal a little less than a year ago and the Government has responded in a way that had tried to put women’s interests first,” he said.
Mr Coveney said that had been Mr Harris’s driving motivation when he offered the free tests.
The Tanaiste also insisted that the decision was made with the support of HSE officials, countering claims from Fianna Fail that the minister acted against advice.
Health officials also revealed on Wednesday that the switch to HPV testing in Ireland had been further delayed, with a date for its introduction still to be fixed as the HSE focuses on dealing with the smear test backlog.
Mr Coveney insisted the HPV test had not been “long fingered”.
“It is going to be done properly to ensure that transition works,” he added.