Tuesday 26 March 2019

'You need to step back' - Angry exchanges as HSE boss forced to defend decision not to resign

Tony O'Brien on Merrion Street following a joint committee health meeting on quarterly update health issues in Leinster House, Dublin.
Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Tony O'Brien on Merrion Street following a joint committee health meeting on quarterly update health issues in Leinster House, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

THERE were angry exchanges as HSE boss Tony O'Brien was forced to defend his decision not to resign in the wake of the cervical cancer screening scandal.

Mr O'Brien who is this morning appearing before the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) clashed with Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry who challenged him to explain how his position is tenable.

Mr MacSharry said an emotional interview given by mother-of-five Emma Mhic Mhathúna (37)  - who was given incorrect smear test results and has now been told she has terminal cancer - was "harrowing".

Mr O'Brien said he did not hear the Morning Ireland interview but said he would listen to it later.

Mr MacSharry relayed how Ms Mhic Mhathúna told RTÉ Radio she's afraid her baby won't remember her.

He put it to Mr Brien "In light of statements like that.

"In light of the principle of accountability.

"Do you not feel that it is totally untenable for you not to resign your position now?"

Mr O'Brien said it's "clearly always very tragic when any young person receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer."

He said Mr MacSharry's question was based on the presumption that there is some action that has been taken that has led to that diagnosis added: "that is far from established".

He said that the cervical screening programme is not a diagnostic programme and while it can limit the number of such cases, it cannot eliminate them.

Mr O'Brien added: "Your question is based on a fundamental premise that this has arisen because of the CervicalCheck programme. And I don’t accept that that’s a reality."

He said there is a review process being set up, including the scoping exercise, and said: "I think it is wrong to jump to such conclusions in advance of the outcome of the outcome of that process."

Mr MacSharry said he "fundamentally" disagreed with Mr O'Brien and said that irrespective of any future investigation "what we know now demands a level of accountability".

He said Mr O'Brien is in charge of the health service and asked him again: "how is your position tenable?"

Mr O'Brien said there is no screening programme in the world that can guarantee there will not subsequently be a cancer and the tests aren't "fool-proof".

He said that the screening programme has detected 50,000 abnormalities which led to early treatment which probably avoided "hundreds of cancers and ultimately deaths".

Mr MacSharry said that failures have left "an entire nation of women terrified".

He accused Mr O'Brien of implying that the screening programme "did a lot of good work and there were some casualties".

Mr O'Brien rejected this and told Mr MacSharry "you need to step back".

Mr MacSharry said his questions weren't personal "but we do have to hold people to account". He claimed there has been "gross systemic failure" adding: "people are dying and you’re telling me that I am making these statements based on a false premise."

Mr O'Brien said he was saying that and suggested that they wait for the outcome of the expert review adding: "at the moment you are causing hysteria".

Mr MacSharry asked where the accountability is while "we’re in here kicking a football around about let’s have an investigation to see what happened."

Independent TD Catherine Connolly later said she didn't think it's the roll of the PAC to "call for heads on a plate" adding that its role is to bring accountability in terms of the use of public money.

Press Association

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