Sunday 18 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Why does the Minister for Health not know what's going on?'

Simon Harris has been forced to admit again that there are serious problems with the cervical cancer programme

Minister for Health Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)
Minister for Health Simon Harris (Niall Carson/PA)

Eilis O'Hanlon

The continuing disorganisation in the cervical cancer screening programme, the latest episode of which has seen results delayed by months for hundreds of women, raises again the crucial question: Does anyone in the Department of Health ever tell Simon Harris anything?

The minister is now insisting that he didn't hear about the latest computer glitch until July 10. His private secretary, however, was in touch with at least one woman on June 6 - 35 days previously - about the matter. That means it was over a month before anyone thought to include Harris in the loop.

There is also evidence that there were indications of a problem back in February.

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That's a long time to be kept in the dark. What else has nobody in his department bothered to tell the minister that might turn out to be clinically significant?

Harris insists that, having met with the chief clinical officer of the HSE, he is confident that there is a "very low clinical risk" for the women affected, and the usual review has now been ordered to examine the sequence of events leading to the mix up.

Will it examine the Department of Health's role in this?

Don't be silly.

Labour's Alan Kelly has already said "the fact that the role of the minister's office hasn't been included in this is a joke". He's not wrong.

The woman identified only as Sharon, who brought the issue to light, had also said she has concerns. She's spoken of months of calls with the department to get them to acknowledge there was a problem. The Tipperary TD has seen the correspondence and thinks it's ridiculous that it hasn't been included in the terms of reference. Patient advocates were also not told.

This face-saving exercise is reminiscent of the scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault orders his men to "round up the usual suspects". If the fault can be placed on the testing lab in the US state of Virginia, 4,000 miles away, then so much the better.

Dublin City University president Brian MacCraith has been tasked solely with conducting the review, but, no matter how thoroughly and professionally he does his job, the terms of reference set down by the HSE will inevitably mean that its worth will be limited. Come August, when the report is delivered to the HSE before being published, the minister will stand up, lower his head slightly to dramatise his solicitude, say sorry, insist that lessons have been learned, and that will be that. Until the next time.

It's certainly unlikely that he will acknowledge the situation has been made worse by his headline-grabbing move in inviting thousands of women back for retests when the original scandal broke, despite warnings that it would lead to a backlog. Now they're saying the backlog will be cleared by September, when the Dail resumes. It all sounds awfully like what he said the last time the cancer screening programme ran into difficulties.

The same question keeps arising - what did he know, and when did he know it? Incredibly, he still seems to believe that not knowing what's going on is a defence rather than an indictment.

"Don't panic" is the Government's soothing advice to women each time, reflecting the statistics which say the cervical cancer screening programme is overwhelmingly trustworthy, and that inaccuracies and delays affect only a tiny proportion of tests. But it's the air of ineptitude hanging over his department, and the minister's own inability to get a grip on the situation, which causes consternation.

The problems keep coming, drip, drip, drip. Hence the slow erosion of trust. There's no particular reason to believe that this will be the end of it either. One would have thought, for example, that, after recent fiascos, Simon Harris might have made it clear to his officials that he was to be kept fully informed of any developments on this issue, however minor, so that he could then decide whether or not action needed to be taken. That doesn't seem to be the case, even when, as here, the issue is far from minor.

It's being shrugged off as a trifling technical problem affecting a small number of women, but people do not live their lives according to statistics. Anyone who has ever anxiously waited for the results of cancer screening knows that each hour is a lifetime, each day an eternity.

As Sharon herself said: "Basically, all I really wanted was to get my results and know that I was okay." That's all anyone ever does want.

Dozens of women will now face rechecks as a result of this computer glitch, meaning further anxiety for every single one of them. Naturally, in light of previous scandals, Sharon's concern was that "women could have negative results and they would be none the wiser". It shouldn't take something like this to happen for the department to remember that, as Sharon says, "all of these women were someone's wife or someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's friend" and that "the important thing here is that every woman in this scandal, just like the last time, is treated with respect".

Simon Harris has scored some notable successes in his short time in high office. If it works out, Slaintecare could end up being the most significant of them all.

But how long is he going to keep dining out on his role in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment?

It's worth looking at what the Minister for Health was actually doing in the days up to July 10, when he still wasn't being told about this computer glitch. He was talking up the alleged urgency of creating exclusion zones around medical facilities that offer abortion in order to effectively criminalise pro-life protests, which he denounced as "pretty disgusting". He was launching a public consultation on free contraception. Using the hashtag #TheNorthIsNext, he was even tweeting approvingly about moves at Westminster to impose same sex marriage on Northern Ireland.

The tweet about abortion also carried another, in retrospect ironic, hashtag - #trustwomen. Simon Harris could start by ensuring that officials in his department trust women, and take their concerns seriously, when they call to flag up problems with the cervical cancer screening programme. They've had enough warnings by now that their current approach is not working.

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