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Stephen Donnelly to meet CervicalCheck campaigners after Vicky Phelan's impassioned plea for action

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Vicky Phelan. Photo: Collins Courts

Vicky Phelan. Photo: Collins Courts

Vicky Phelan. Photo: Collins Courts

The Health Minister has promised to meet CervicalCheck campaigners in the coming weeks following an impassioned plea for action in this newspaper from the woman who exposed the debacle, Vicky Phelan.

On Friday, Stephen Donnelly appointed two judges to a tribunal set up to compensate women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy but delayed by Covid-19 and the departure of two of its members.

The steering committee to oversee the recommendations of Dr Gabriel Scally, who investigated the screening and disclosure failures, is to resume with an independent chair, the Department said.

More than 200 women have been directly affected by the crisis, which saw the misreading of hundreds of cervical smear tests, leading to some women developing terminal cancer.

A report by Dr Scally led to a CervicalCheck steering committee to oversee his recommendations. A tribunal was established as an alternative to the "adversarial" High Court. However, the progress in addressing the screening and disclosure failures has been dogged by dispute and delays, much of it caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lorraine Walsh, a patient advocate and member of the 221+ Patient Support Group, representing women directly impacted by the failures, resigned from the steering committee in December saying she had been "dismissed, ignored, bullied and threatened" by the Department of Health.

Several commentators, including Dr Scally, have expressed reservations about the tribunal set up to hear the cases and award compensation to the affected women. Successive politicians, including Taoiseach Micheal Martin, said that the tribunal would be non-adversarial.

However, the former chair of the tribunal, Ms Justice Mary Irvine, who stepped down on her appointment as president of the High Court, said claims that the tribunal would be less adversarial were "not accurate".

This is because the act provides that claims before the tribunal are to be heard in the same manner as the High Court hears personal injury cases for negligence, which is an "adversarial process". She said it would also attempt to be as fair, just and expeditious as possible.

Dr Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, told the Sunday Independent that he did not favour the tribunal model.

"Where there are errors that take place, the point is not to turn it into this gladiatorial contest. The point is to learn from the error, for the patient to learn what went wrong and to know about it," he said. "There should then be a mechanism for compensation to be paid but without going through this legal palaver, which is in itself a waste of money."

In the absence of a tribunal, more than 200 active claims in relation to CervicalCheck are before the courts, along with eight that have been resolved.

However, women whose cancer was diagnosed after 2018 and who believe their slides were misread are not included in the scheme.

Two cases before the High Court last week involved women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer last year and do not fall within the scope of the tribunal. In both cases, some of their slides were allegedly misread in 2014 and 2016. Their slides were not audited by CervicalCheck following their diagnosis because the auditing process was suspended in 2018 pending a review.

Plans to resume auditing of cancer screening has also been delayed. The audit process was suspended in 2018 and an expert group appointed to review it. The Department of Health said Covid-19 has interrupted its progress.

Writing following the recent death of her friend Ruth Morrissey, whose slides were negligently reported, Ms Phelan called on the Government to take action.

Ms Phelan, who was also given a terminal diagnosis, called for the enactment of legislation to provide for mandatory open disclosure, implementation of all outstanding recommendations from the Scally Report, a new Steering Committee to oversee CervicalCheck, and a CervicalCheck Tribunal that "does not involve confrontation with the laboratories".

The two new judges are Ms Justice Ann Power, who will chair the tribunal, and Mr Justice Tony O'Connor. Mr Justice Brian McGovern is the third member.

The Department said this weekend that a tender process and recruitment have begun for a new National Screening Service. The outsourcing of tests for reading was criticised by Dr Scally's report. It said 137 of the 170 actions identified in the report have been completed.

Sunday Independent