Saturday 17 August 2019

Harris to face further grilling on decision to offer free smear tests

Advice: Former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Grainne Flannelly. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Advice: Former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Grainne Flannelly. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Eilish O'Regan and John Downing

Health Minister Simon Harris will face another Dáil grilling about his decision to offer free repeat smear tests to all women last year - despite his insistence he was not advised against the move.

It comes as the HSE yesterday gave its most optimistic prediction yet that it would clear a backlog of nearly 80,000 tests and delays of up to 33 weeks for a result.

Damien McCallion, acting head of screening services in the HSE, said contracts with labs to read the tests could be signed within weeks that would mean women would be written to and told when to expect their result.

A number of members of the Oireachtas Health Committee heaped blame on Mr Harris yesterday for contributing to this build-up of tests after his decision last April to provide out-of-schedule screening to any woman following the CervicalCheck scandal.

Former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr Grainne Flannelly, wrote to the committee saying that she advised against the plan - warning labs could not cope with the demand. Dr Flannelly's claim sparked fresh questions for the minister.

Dr Flannelly did not appear before the committee and the exact manner in which her advice was communicated remains unclear.

"What she says directly contradicts the minister's position and what she says suggests that the minister has misled the Dáil for a second time. He misled the Dáil on the Children's Hospital and has apologised for doing so," said Fianna Fáil spokesman on health, Stephen Donnelly.

However, Mr Harris later rejected claims he acted against advice. He recalled how women were worried and frightened at the time.

"Politicians, GPs and many, many others were saying 'you need to be able to provide women with assurance'. It was the number one query coming into the CervicalCheck helpline: Can I have another smear test or do I need to wait three years?"

It was only fair to provide it free to those women who could not afford it, he added.

Speaking during Leaders' Questions yesterday, Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin said Mr Harris should appear before TDs to explain the sequence of events that lead to the offer of repeat smears being made.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the minister would address the Dáil on the issue.

Meanwhile officials from CervicalCheck and the HSE told the committee yesterday that they still hope to introduce HPV testing to cervical screening at the end of this year or early 2020.

Irish Independent

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