Tuesday 22 October 2019

Editorial: 'Spin-obsessed response has made cancer scandal worse'

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Niall Carson/PA


It will soon be a year since the controversy over cervical cancer began.

More than 221 women were affected, 21 of whom have died.

The Government's response to this national tragedy at almost every juncture since has been a study in how not to react to a crisis. Expediency, rather than compassion, framed every reaction.

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Tripping over themselves to be all things to everyone, they found themselves, from the outset, criticised for undermining the CervicalCheck service which is so vital for the detection and prevention of cancer.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris, in the rush to 'get ahead' of what was a hugely traumatic experience for the few women in the eye of the storm, made matters worse by doubling down on promises that could never be met.

Mr Varadkar made a rudimentary error by declaring that no sick woman would be dragged before the courts in their battle for redress. This was an assurance he was in no position to stand over, as subsequent events so painfully proved.

Mr Harris also made a rash commitment in offering women repeat smears if they had concerns in the wake of the storm over the CervicalCheck programme. As a result, the number of women seeking smear tests grew last year to 370,000, from 280,000.

We now learn how this has produced a backlog of cervical smear slides, which stands at 78,000. A direct consequence is that a new, more accurate HPV test for cervical cancer must be delayed until all these tests are complete.

It has also resulted in the delay in examining smears being lengthened further, with women now waiting up to 27 weeks for test results.

Yesterday, the Oireachtas Committee on Health heard how the decision to offer repeat smear tests was taken in the context of a rapidly evolving situation and worries over CervicalCheck.

We also heard how Mr Harris did not receive any advice "to the contrary", suggesting he not go ahead with the measure.

A defence of 'nobody told me not to' doesn't cut it. Responsibility rests with the minister.

It has been noted that governments have a tendency less to solve problems and more to rearrange them. Time and again, as seen in the furore over the massive over-spend on the National Children's Hospital, the debate locks on to figures. However, there is a human cost here.

A fixation with image or fear of possible negative feedback clouds judgment.

Thankfully, according to medical experts, this delay will not have a significant impact on the health of women.

However, the extended anxious wait, fuelling concerns, is unfair, unnecessary and inexcusable.

No administration can afford to forget the effects its decision-making can have on families.

Once a government passes the point of being 'of ourselves', it runs the risk of being regarded as an 'alien power' over us - and no amount of spin can reverse the cycle.

Irish Independent

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