Tuesday 19 March 2019

Official Ireland is now officially bad for your health

Another day, another scandal: Tony O'Brien was head of the National Screening Service when dangers of outsourcing smear tests were raised in 2008. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Another day, another scandal: Tony O'Brien was head of the National Screening Service when dangers of outsourcing smear tests were raised in 2008. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

'You can gaze out the window, get mad and get and get madder/ Throw your hands in the air in and say what does it matter?"

Whenever an Irish scandal breaks, it hard not to think of John Prine and the lyrics from 'Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)'.

We're so used to incompetence and ass-covering from the official institutions of this State that it's hard to stay mad at all of them, because that would simply take up all of your day.

Irish politicians like to complain that the people have become too cynical, but when it comes to interactions between individual citizens and Official Ireland, cynicism isn't just a default setting, it's a more of a coping mechanism.

If Limerick mother-of-two, Vicky Phelan, hadn't shown the immense courage to expose the scandal, the obscenity of women being given incorrect cancer readings would have continued unabated.

Even in isolation her story was horrifying. Yet, in a case which seems to snowball with each new day, it emerged on Thursday that as many as 1,500 women are now at risk of facing the same hellish situation as Ms Phelan.

What initially seemed like just another example of bureaucrats behaving badly has escalated to one of the great scandals of our age.

The idea that so many false negatives were issued is bad enough.

That many women had to wait until they actually had cancer before learning the cancer test results they had been given were inaccurate is almost beyond belief.

As Emma Mhic Mhathúna, another victim, put it: "Don't ever, for the foreseeable future, put me in front of somebody who works for CervicalCheck... making women go around thinking something is true when it's not."

In what seems a particularly cruel twist of fate, Ms Mhic Mhathúna was even used by the HSE for a promotional video.

She says: "I feel the joke is on me because I went and tried to help CervicalCheck by making sure I said in the HPV ad that the smear had picked up my cells."

There is a disconnect in this country between the powers that be and the rest of us.

Whether it's the ongoing and seemingly never-ending investigations into garda wrongdoing at the very highest levels, or politicians repeatedly proving that they're not fit for the job, or the constant litany of failings in the HSE, we are consistently reminded that the inner circle in this country simply don't give a damn about the rest of us.

Put bluntly, there is something inherently rotten at the heart of Official Ireland.

What's worse is that it's hard to ignore the thought that the HSE might have been happier for Phelan to die before she could tell her story.

Is this the way we want to run our country?

To add insult to such life-limiting injury, we've seen the HSE circle the wagons and do what they always do - promise that lessons will be learned, issue mealy mouthed statements of regret and then hide behind the old Irish favourite, "legal advice".

But actions speak louder than words.

I'm sure Tony O'Brien of the HSE is a decent man, but his actions in response to this scandal is straight from the Official Ireland playbook - express regret, deny all responsibility and then refuse to step down because you want to sort it out.

But this didn't just land on an unsuspecting O'Brien's desk one morning.

As far back as 2008, Dr David Gibbons of the National Cervical Screening Programme, was warning about the dangers of outsourcing smear tests and the possibility of missed cases or misdiagnosed cancer.

Dr Gibbons brought his concerns to the head of the National Screening Service and was so appalled at the indifferent response that he resigned in protest.

The head of the National Screening Service at the time? Take a bow, Tony O'Brien.

It's often said that we live in a two-tier society and when it comes to accepting responsibility, that is definitely the case.

It seems obvious that if anything of the kind had occurred in a private company, heads would have rolled and Tony O'Brien would have been the first to go.

It was announced yesterday that he is to 'take a leave of absence' from the board of Evofem Biosciences, the US firm he joined earlier this year.

This will provide little consolation to those affected, and it merely raises questions about why the head of the HSE was allowed to double job.

At the time of writing, he was still hanging on to his €190k day job.

No doubt his expressions of remorse are sincere, but it's hard to muster much empathy for a man who first heard about such a possibility a decade ago.

Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that: "This isn't just about targeting individuals or looking for heads to roll."

Why not? The people calling for heads to roll aren't some Twitter mob offended by loose words.

They're women who have suffered at the hands of their own nation's health service. Had they had received the correct results at the time, they could have taken measures to save themselves earlier.

People are angry, but worse than that, they're scared and they have to cope with the hideous possibility that they have been simply left to die.

Will heads roll? Unlikely.

That's just not how it's done in Official Ireland...

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