Harris to stand over 'free tests' decision amid 80,000 backlog

Simon Harris: The Health Minister will say that he ‘acted on advice’. Photo: Aoife Moore/PA

Eilish O'Regan and Laura Larkin

Health Minister Simon Harris will stand over his decision to offer free repeat smear tests to women during the CervicalCheck scandal, insisting it matched advice given by his top medical adviser.

The Department of Health was commenting in the wake of claims that chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was not in favour of a blanket offer of tests last April.

At the time, the Government was under massive pressure and many thousands of anxious women wanted to re-do their cervical screening.

Mr Harris is under pressure to be more specific about the advice he received before the decision to offer the free repeat tests.

It is being blamed for contributing to a backlog of 80,000 tests and delays of up to 33 weeks for a result.

Separately, the HSE has identified labs that could provide extra capacity for processing screening tests and it is hoped that contracts can be finalised in the coming weeks.

Junior Minister Seán Canney, however, said "nothing is ruled out" when asked if the screening programme could be paused in order to address the backlog.

"I think we should get the extra capacity and see how that works instead of taking knee-jerk reactions to stop it," the Independent minister said.

It has been reported that Dr Holohan was in favour of a more restricted form of offer of free tests last year.

But a spokeswoman for the department said the decision was to offer the tests to any woman who was concerned about her health, "where her GP felt she should have a further test as part of her reassurance".

"This decision was made in good faith to address the considerable fears of the many anxious women in Ireland," she said.

The minister's decision and the announcement on April 28 were consistent with advice received from his officials, she added. "The advice of the chief medical officer to the minister was reflected in the press statement issued on April 28."

It said: "For any woman who has had a CervicalCheck smear test and where her GP feels she should have a further test as part of her reassurance, the minister has asked CervicalCheck to make the necessary arrangements, including payment provision. These arrangements will be confirmed next week."

Dr Holohan's advice was followed in the decision to offer a woman a consultation first with her GP to talk over the issues involved. If she still wanted a test this could be granted.

The offer ended at the end of last year, but the HSE has been attempting to secure extra capacity over several months to clear the backlog.

Fianna Fáil spokesman on health Stephen Donnelly wants the minister to release all emails the department received from the national screening service setting out advice on the free repeat tests.