Belfast Telegraph

Health chief in smear tests row ‘must quit now, not just leave post early’

Tony O’Brien has been at the centre of a controversy about cervical cancer smear tests.

A decision by the under-pressure chief of Ireland’s health service to leave his post a month early has not dampened calls for his immediate resignation.

The Government has confirmed that Health Service Executive (HSE) director Tony O’Brien is to retire at the start of July, four weeks earlier than scheduled, as a result of taking unused holiday entitlement.

The move appears to have done little to ease the pressure on Mr O’Brien over a controversy about wrongly interpreted cervical cancer smear tests.

Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness has indicated his party will support an anticipated motion of no confidence in Mr O’Brien in the Dail next week.

Sinn Fein is tabling a motion calling for the director general to quit, with party president Mary Lou McDonald insisting the “writing is on the wall” for the HSE chief.

I do not believe he should have the opportunity to dictate the time of his departure John McGuinnes, Fianna Fail TD

The Government has resisted calls to sack Mr O’Brien, saying it was better he stay in post to help find out what went wrong.

Last week it was revealed that an audit by CervicalCheck – the national screening programme – of 1,482 women diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008 had found potential errors in 208 cases, as tests showed no abnormality when they should have been given a cancer warning.

The majority of the 208 women – 162 – were not initially told of the outcome of the audit. Of the 208, 17 have since died.

It then emerged that a further 1,518 women with the cancer in the same period have not been audited, though health chiefs stress the number affected by potential errors in this group is likely to be lower.

Mr O’Brien told an Oireachtas committee last week that he would not resign but instead devote his remaining time until the end of his contract to addressing the “failures”.

He said he would accept some responsibility for the issue, but not “full responsibility”.

The director-general is taking temporary leave of absence from the board of a US company he joined earlier this year to focus on the fall-out from the smear test furore.

Mr McGuinness said he should resign from the HSE with “immediate effect”.

“I do not believe he should have the opportunity to dictate the time of his departure,” he told RTE Radio One’s This Week.

“And I think that would send a very clear signal to the country, in this case to the women and their families, that the political system is bent on holding these individuals to account.”

He added: “I believe we have reached the point now where we either put down a motion or an amendment to the motion that’s before the Dail and that we take immediate action, decisive action to restore some confidence in the political system that we can hold individuals to account.”

Mr O’Brien availing of his holiday leave is hardly an adequate or appropriate response to the debacle Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein president

Mrs McDonald told the same programme: “I think Mr O’Brien availing of his holiday leave is hardly an adequate or appropriate response to the debacle and the scandal and the disaster that has now visited women and their families across this land. This is about a calling to account.”

The Sinn Fein TD added: “If we are not willing, if the Government is not willing to hold the director general to account when something goes catastrophically wrong in the HSE, well, all of the talk about reform and change is only that, only talk – it won’t amount to anything.”

The controversy was triggered by the case of Vicky Phelan, the terminally ill mother whose legal battle cast light on the issue.

Last month Ms Phelan, a 43-year-old mother of two from Co Limerick, settled a High Court action for 2.5 million euro after being incorrectly told in 2011 that her smear test had given a negative result for cancer.

In 2014 she was diagnosed with cancer but only told of the false negative last September.

An independent review of the screening programme has already been launched while the clinical director of CervicalCheck stepped down last weekend.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged a redress scheme for women negatively impacted by the failings.

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