Monday 23 September 2019

'More heads will have to roll' - Vicky Phelan on Tony O'Brien resignation

  • Vicky Phelan 'not surprised' at tone of HSE memo
  • Alleged actions detailed in memo on cervical cancer scandal are 'disgusting' - minister
  • Minister Regina Doherty slams actions of those behind a memo written in 2016
  • 'What they clearly didn't care about was the 209 women who all have cancer, who are all fighting and struggling to save their lives' - Doherty
  • Health Minister presenting 'practical proposals' in Cabinet today for those affected by scandal
  • Outgoing HSE chief Tony O'Brien launches personal attack on TDs
  • FF TD Marc McSharry defends his questioning at the PAC
Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Denise Calnan, Laura Larkin and Philip Ryan

The woman whose High Court case first exposed the cervical cancer scandal has said "more heads will have to roll".

Vicky Phelan said she "wasn't surprised" with the tone of a memo written in 2016 that was released to the public yesterday.

It is now nearly two weeks since it emerged that 209 women, who were wrongly given all-clear test results, were the subject of internal CervicalCheck reviews.

Ms Phelan said the tone reminded her of HSE correspondence she had seen in relation to her own case.

"It was very clinical and they seemed more worried about themselves and being sued rather than me, the patient," she told RTE Radio One's 'Today with Sean O'Rourke'.

"These memos are even more damning...containment and media management was the priority not the women."

Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna
Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna

Ms Phelan continued; "I don't know who needs to be held accountable, that's not my job, it's above my pay grade."

"I had a phonecall from Simon Harris this morning and we had a conversation, he told me what steps he's putting in place to deal with this because he knows, no more than we all know that other people are involved.

"More heads will have to roll.

"Tony O'Brien has stepped down.... other people should start worrying about their positions at this stage."

Minister Regina Doherty Photo: Tony Gavin
Minister Regina Doherty Photo: Tony Gavin

Minister Regina Doherty said the alleged actions of the HSE detailed in a memo on the cervical cancer scandal are "disgusting".

Speaking on RTE Radio One's Morning Ireland, Minister Doherty said it was "very obvious" to her that those behind the memo had no concern for the 209 misdiagnosed women.

Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Vicky Phelan who received incorrect smear test results in 2011 and was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014. Photo: Fergal Phillips

"We don't know who made the decision to pause letters [informing patients of their misdiagnosis]," Minister Doherty said.

"The language in those memos yesterday... I mean I very rarely agree with Alan Kelly but it's absolutely outrageous.

"For a caring profession, I think the very obvious part for me was the only thing they cared about was protecting themselves from the potential risk of a media campaign.

"What they clearly didn't care about was the 209 women who all have cancer, who are all fighting and struggling to save their lives.

"It is so obvious it wasn't in anybody's intention or mind then they were writing these memos."

She continued; "They were writing these memos to defend and protect themselves... because God forbid if any women got a letter that she might run to the media, it's disgusting."

The minister said she does not feel she has accountability after the embattled HSE Director General Tony O'Brien took the decision to step down from his position yesterday.

His decision followed Children's Minister Katherine Zappone publicly calling for him to resign after the contents of the 2016 memo were revealed.

The Independent minister broke ranks to describe the latest revelations in the CervicalCheck scandal as a "game-changer".

Minister Doherty said this morning she wouldn't have allowed Tony O'Brien to step down.

"Well, to be very clear and this is only my personal opinion, Tony O'Brien resigning last night doesn't give me accountability.

"I know, and I heard last night, that [one of the women caught up in the cervical cancer scandal] Emma Mhic Mhathúna said she got joy, in a weird way I'm very pleased for her, because of the difficult circumstances that her and her children are in at the moment.

"But we don't have accountability, we don't know who made the decision to pause the letters."

The minister also said Health Minister Simon Harris will be presenting "practical proposals" today about how to help the affected women and their families.

"Today's Cabinet meeting is very important. It's all about the women affected, and the women who have passed away.

"The only thing about this is minding the women, which the HSE doesn't seem to get, which you don't get when you read the language in the memos.

"[Tony O'Brien] made his decison last night so let him off. I wouldn't have let him off, but I don't get to give my view. Simon Harris is bringing proposals today, practical proposals, about the treatment, be it experimental drugs, medical care and childcare."

She added; "The only thing we can do is fix the situation as it is at the moment.

"Our priority is to mind the 209 women and their families and help them in any simple way to fight for their lives."

The minister also called for a change-up in the management structure of the HSE.

Meanwhile, Tony O’Brien has launched a personal attack on TDs after he was forced to resign as HSE chief executive.

In a message posted on his Twitter account, Mr O’Brien said he hoped the children of TDs questioning him at Oireachtas committee meetings over handling of the health service do not watch their public performances.

“When I appear in public - say at a Committee I conduct myself against a simple standard.  Would I be happy for my children or my mother to see how I behave?” Mr O’Brien

“I sometimes  look across the room and hope their children will never see and hear how they behave,”he said.

Mr O’Brien was forced to step down over his oversight of the Cervical Check scandal.

Two terminally ill mothers - Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathuna - who were given incorrect cervical check results had called for Mr O’Brien to resign.

The emergence of damning internal HSE memo also put pressure on Mr O’Brien to resign.

Also today, TD Marc McSharry has defended his questioning style at the Public Accounts Committee, saying his questioning of outgoing HSE boss Tony O'Brien yesterday is consistent with his style at previous committee hearings.

Speaking to RTE Radio One's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Mr McSharry said; "Looking back, there is nothing I would change."

"I can understand he's not happy, he's lashing out somewhat," he said of Tony O'Brien.

"But this is not about Tony O'Brien, this is about the women of Ireland, life and death and the accountability people are entitled to.

"I don't think, I can understand him tweeting, but I think before the end of today someone in the HSE needs to take him aside and say this is not about you.

"I have no difficulty in anybody criticising me. I get the fact that as a public representative I am open to scrutiny and accountability, I don't think Mr O'Brien gets it."

He continued; "I heard Morning Ireland yesterday and I heard that harrowing story [Emma Mhic Mhathúna's story].

"That personal frustration and anger may have come across in my questioning.

"Looking back, there is nothing I would change.

"The biggest issue, who this is about, is the women of Ireland and not Tony O'Brien."


As of yesterday face-to-face contact still had to be made with seven of the women or relatives.

Seventeen women have died and their next of kin are now being traced.

HSE director Damien McCallion, now installed to oversee the running of the screening service, said he did not know how many women received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

“One lady is in Russia and we’re trying to work through the Russian Embassy to make contact with her. And there are three people who had multiple hospitals involved and we’re trying to close those out.”

Most women have been contacted and meetings have been held or arranged to discuss the audit and response, said the HSE.

Meanwhile, CervicalCheck said yesterday more than 3,500 women who contacted the helpline still need a callback.

So far it has returned 5,678 calls “and every effort is being made to ensure that contact is made as quickly as possible with all those who requested a callback”.

The HSE is also working to secure the names and details of around 1,500 other women who developed cervical cancer in the past decade who were registered with the National Cancer Registry but not subject to review by CervicalCheck.

Meanwhile, the organisation representing Irish staff involved in the reading of smear tests said yesterday that when Irish labs tendered to do the CervicalCheck work in 2008 they scored highly in all areas except cost.

The work went to Quest Diagnostics in Texas. Half the smears are now read in the United States and the rest in Dublin labs.

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