Health minister ‘misled Dail’ over free smear test advice
Simon Harris announced free tests in April last year following the CervicalCheck scandal.
The Minister for Health has been accused of misleading the Dail after he denied claims he was given expert advice not to offer women free out-of-cycle smear tests.
It comes after the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr Grainne Flannelly, said the Government went ahead with the offer despite her raising concerns with HSE officials.
Dr Flannelly said she warned the repeat smear tests would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme”.
Health minister Simon Harris announced the free tests in April last year following the CervicalCheck scandal.
Stephen Donnelly, health spokesman for Fianna Fail, said Dr Flannelly’s submission to the Oireachtas Health Committee “directly contradicts the minister’s position”.
“What she said suggests that he misled the Dail,” he added.
“To this day the minister maintains that the offer of the test was made and before it was made there was no clinical advice not to do so, he has stated that.”
Damien McCallion, national director of the HSE’s screening services, told the committee that almost 80,000 women are waiting 33 weeks to receive smear test results, which “remains a concern”.
Mr Donnelly outlined further concerns raised by Dr Flannelly before Mr Harris made the announcement in a tweet.
“She predicted what would come to pass and what we are all dealing with today,” he added.
“She said that the laboratories would not have sufficient capacity if the offer was made and this would lead to longer waiting times, she predicted that it would not have the capacity to deal with additional referrals, and she says most importantly “it would fundamentally undermine the screening programme”, which is exactly what this ill-advised offer did.
“We have very detailed evidence from Dr Flannelly stating that the minister and/or his officials were advised by experts at the National Screening Service not to proceed, and this offer was made before any announcement, and that the advice predicted the fundamental undermining of the programme.”
Dr Colm Henry, chief clinical officer, said he only became aware of the advice on Tuesday night.
“I remember at the time there was a huge amount of public anxiety,” he added.
“I think it was reasonable, looking back, to judge any decision made in the context of the time and the great deal of anxiety that prevailed at the time and the misinformation and misunderstanding about screening.”
Dr Lorraine Doherty, clinical director of Cervicalcheck, said the organisation was dealing with a “very difficult situation” in relation to confidence in the programme.
She said the medical benefit of an out-of-cycle smear can cover a range of issues including psychological.
“In this scenario the decision was taken collectively in government to offer women to avail of a free smear test,” she added.
“Decision was taken at a point in time when a service was in crisis. Ordinarily we would not advise women to have out-of-cycle smears unless there is very good reason to do so.”
Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly said it was “very clear” that advice was given which should have made its way to the minister.
She added: “From her (Dr Flannelly) submission she strongly advised against it and she said it would undermine the screening programme.”
She added that it is a “serious issue” if expert advice is being ignored by health department officials.
Around 370,000 women used the screening programme last year, an increase of around 90,000 compared with 2017.
Mr McCallion said the HSE remains “extremely conscious” about women’s anxieties over the smear test results delays.
“The HSE is doing its utmost in order to find solutions to these waiting times and we apologise to the women for these delays and for the upset caused,” he added.
“We remain concerned at the length of time being taken for reporting of cervical smears.
“We have worked with existing private providers, other private providers and public service providers in other countries to try and grow our laboratory capacity.”