Monday 26 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Sure, who listens to little old me? That excuse doesn't wash'

If Health Minister Simon Harris can't anticipate predictable problems, then he's not up to the job, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

SIMON HARRIS: Just what is a minister for anyway?
SIMON HARRIS: Just what is a minister for anyway?

Legendary football manager Bill Shankly once gave his own inimitable interpretation of the offside rule by stating that, if a player is not "interfering with play", he has no business being on the field. The same principle should apply in politics.

Instead, as soon as some crisis or scandal hits a department, the minister in charge invariably declares that it's nothing to do with them, that they knew nothing about it, that no one told them a thing.

Their argument is, in effect, that they may have been on the pitch but they weren't interfering with play, begging the question what they're doing in the job in the first place.

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Practice is making Health Minister Simon Harris particularly adept at this game.

The cervical smear scandal is just the latest example. Last April, following revelations that more than 200 patients who'd been given false negatives in their tests but not been told may have benefited from earlier treatment, all women were offered the chance to come in for a new smear test for free. An extra 108,000 women availed of the service, with the result being that the waiting time for results has gone up from four to 33 weeks. The delay is such that thousands of tests have expired and will need to be taken again.

Simon Harris denies that he was warned this might happen, and continues to insist it was an "appropriate step to take as part of the reassurance mechanism", and was taken collectively by government under the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. He also denies that the decision to offer free cervical cancer rechecks was made for political reasons to dampen public outrage.

In fact, Harris asserts that, as soon as he was advised to end the scheme in October, he took immediate steps to do so. Fianna Fail health spokesman Stephen Donnelly has evidence, however, that the minister was warned as early as June that "urgent intervention was needed to cope with increased demand". So why did it take so long before he addressed the problem?

To date, the minister has been good at laying out what he didn't know, but less forthcoming about what he did know - or, more pertinently, what questions he bothered to ask to plug his knowledge gap.

It should, after all, be entirely predictable that inviting thousands of women to use a service might put the system under strain. If he was blissfully ignorant of that possibility, what is his qualification for making decisions at all?

To make matters worse, former CervicalCheck clinical director Dr Grainne Flannelly has now told the Oireachtas Health Committee that she did warn a senior official in the HSE of the possible consequences just hours before the programme was announced on April 28 last year. The department refuses to publish email correspondence, but Harris couldn't be more adamant: "I never received any contrary advice in relation to the provision of free repeat smear tests."

The Opposition may be opportunistic in targeting the minister, but that doesn't mean Harris is in the clear. He's already been forced to apologise once for misleading the Dail about the budget for the National Children's Hospital.

Right now, there are two possibilities. Either Harris was warned and is now not being straight about it, or nobody told him. What's strange is that anyone in government should leap on the explanation that Harris was simply not told what was going on as if that somehow vindicates his reputation.

It would mean that, despite being captain of the team, he wasn't considered important enough to involve in the game. That should be regarded as an appalling vista rather than the minister's Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Jim Breslin, secretary general of the Department of Health, has already said: "If you're saying to me was a full capacity analysis performed... a full review of all the capacity and the global potential to increase that? No it wasn't."

Isn't it a basic duty of the minister to ask these questions before proceeding?

It goes back to the question of what a minister is for. In return for a salary of more than €170,000, ministers are expected to be on top of their briefs, in touch with all the details, and cervical cancer is more than a minor detail.

Last April, despite distractions from the forthcoming Eighth Amendment referendum, it should have been the number one priority in the Department of Health. That a decision was made to offer women free rechecks shows the seriousness of public concern, but, by May 2, RTE's News At One was reporting that there was already a "massive volume of calls" to the helpline, and that the HSE was having to prioritise callers. "There's quite the delay in getting the call back," presenter Claire Byrne noted. RTE health correspondent Fergal Bowers agreed: "It's likely to grow, it's going to be a very, very difficult case to manage." Problems were clearly evident within days.

Did no one tell the minister about that either?

The Taoiseach's explanation is that "we acted perhaps from the heart rather than the head". In other words, their only crime was caring too much. Presumably, that will be the excuse if Harris's offer to make abortions free, which was made within 24 hours of the legislation being signed by the President, proves equally impractical.

Budget 2019 set aside €12m in initial costs, while conceding that this is not the total bill envisaged annually for abortions but an initial roll-out cost. Still "sources close to" the minister say he's "frustrated" at legal barriers to making abortions free for women from outside the State, too. Will it subsequently transpire that there were warnings about this, too, and that he either did not listen to them, or was never informed?

It's about taking responsibility. Harris said last week that "it's kind of bizarre that people are trying to suggest that women went for repeat smear tests because of any decision that I made".

In contrast, after the tragic death of HPV vaccine campaigner Laura Brennan, he criticised TDs who had raised concerns about the Gardisil vaccine, saying: "It's dangerous and going to cost lives."

In other words, backbench TDs must be held accountable for what they say and do, but not himself, because, sure, who listens to little old me anyway? If he has such a low opinion of his ability to interfere with play, he should step aside for another player.

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