Harris rejects claims that he was advised against offering free repeat smear tests

THE Minister for Health Simon Harris has rejected claims that he was advised by the former clinical director of CervicalCheck not to offer women a smear test outside of their three or five yearly schedule.

He was responding to a written communication to the Oireachtas health committee from Dr Grainne Flannelly that she warned the open invitation to women in late April last year would mean labs could not cope with the increase.

The offer was made as the CervicalCheck scandal raged and thousands of worried women were contacting GPs about their tests.

However, Mr Harris said he did not receive this advice and the decision was made with the support of the Chief Medical Officer and officials.

It was a response to the huge level of worry among women at the time, he insisted.

There is now a backlog of around 80,000 tests now with reporting delays of up to 33 weeks following the decision of thousands of women to avail of the free test.

Damian McCallion, head of the HSE screening service, said today he was optimistic that headway will be made in cutting the backlog in the near future and additional lab capacity has been identified which is currently being checked for quality assurance.

The issue of whether Mr Harris was told about Dr Flannelly’s advice was raised by Fianna Fail spokesman on health Deputy Stephen Donnelly  at Oireachtas health committee today.

He said if Mr Harris had been informed the minister would have misled the Dail because he previously said no such advice was given.

Mr Harris said today: “Let us remember the time. We had lost all confidence in management of Cervical Check, I had lost confidence, the Opposition had, certainly the women of Ireland had. We had sent in new management.”

It would not have been fair if some worried women were able to pay for a test but others who were anxious , and could not afford it, lost out, he said. The fairest decision was to provide a free test to all after consultation with their GP.

  • Read More: Former CervicalCheck clinical director said she warned labs could not cope with free repeat smear tests

This comes as Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, has launched a scathing attack on the Health Minister and challenged him to correct the record of the Dáil about the circumstances leading to a 33-week delay in delivering cervical test results.

Mr Martin said it was clear that the head of the cervical test service had warned against offering free re-tests for women concerned when the controversy broke in spring 2018.

The Fianna Fáil leader said the then-head of the service, Dr Gráinne Flannelly, had warned that the offer of free re-tests would disrupt the service causing serious backlogs.  He said the Government was still claiming that this warning was not relayed to the Minister or his senior officials.

“The full truth must be told about the exact series of events,” Mr Martin told the Dáil. He added that he believed the Health Minister, Simon Harris, must be directed to come to the Dáil and correct the formal record.

But the Taoiseach hit back saying the Fianna Fáil leader had himself castigated the cervical test service leaders in May 2018 – the same officials whose cause he was now actively championing.

“You said they were ‘cold, calculating, possibly involved in illegality and conspiracy,’” the Taoiseach recalled Mr Martin as saying.  In that event, Mr Varadkar said, it was up to Mr Martin to correct the Dáil record.

The Taoiseach said test result delays were now running at about 15 weeks – though in some cases this was up to 33 weeks which was unacceptable. Mr Varadkar said the scheme was overall successful in reducing deaths by helping earlier diagnosis of cervical cancer.

He added that part of the current delay was due to a greater uptake in the service, and more resources were being put into the system to speed things up.

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