Friday 24 May 2019

'Everyone deserves a fair hearing' - Taoiseach rejects calls to sack HSE boss over cancer test scandal

  • Opposition calls for Taoiseach to sack head of the HSE
  • Varadkar rejects suggestion, noting everyone deserves a fair hearing
  • New cervical cancer test to be introduced by end of year
  • Government pledge 'to get to the bottom of this'
HSE Director General Tony O’Brien. Photo: Tom Burke
HSE Director General Tony O’Brien. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has utterly rejected calls to sack the Health Service Executive boss, Tony O’Brien, in the wake of the cancer misdiagnosis scandal.

Mr O’Brien was in charge of the national cancer screening service back in 2007 when contracts were awarded to US laboratories.  He later went on to the top job in the national health administration and is due to retire later this summer.

But Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, told the Dáil that Mr O’Brien should be “relieved of his duties” after it has emerged that 17 women had died after being given a wrongful “all-clear” to the test results.

Replying during a highly-charged Dáil debate on the issue, the Taoiseach said the Sinn Féin leader’s call was based on a wrong assumption that the US contract decision had cost lives.

“Even Tony O’Brien deserves a fair hearing before they are condemned,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told RTE's Drivetime that he supported an investigation to establish all of the facts.

"I personally believe that the truth should come out first before there is any sacrificial sackings," he said of whether he supported calls for Mr O'Brien to step down or be forced to resign.

In the Dáil today Mr Martin, said the women found to have cervical cancer should have been informed immediately by the health authorities that their false “all-clear” test results had been discovered earlier than they were led to believe.

Mr Martin noted that 162 women had not been told that an internal review of their cases had been carried out by the screening service, CervicalCheck,  and that it was this which belatedly uncovered the false all-clear diagnosis.

The Fianna Fáil leader rejected arguments that telling the women, in the wake of their cancer diagnosis, would have made no difference.

“But I would suggest that it would have made a hell of a difference to the women involved and to their families,” Mr Martin said.

Mr Varadkar pledged to get to the bottom of what has happened in the cervical cancer screening programme, CervicalCheck.

“This country is one that hasn’t always treated women very well… so I am determined to get to the bottom of this,” he said.

The Taoiseach said he first became aware of the issue Thursday or Friday last week.

He also confirmed that legislation is to be brought forward to make "open disclosure" mandatory, which would obligate doctors to inform patients of any serious event in relation to their care.

Mr Varadkar also moved to allay the fears of women who are worried about recent smear results or that they have not been fully informed of their tests.

"They [some women] are afraid that the HSE knows they have cancer and they are not being told. That’s not the case. There is nobody walking around today with a diagnosis of cervical cancer against whom that is being withheld by the HSE," he said.

A new test for cervical cancer screening is to come into effect before the end of this year, Mr Varadkar said.

The Taoiseach also said there is no evidence to date that any one of the three labs used for testing - two in the US and one here in Ireland - is any more likely to bring false negatives than the other.

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