Belfast Telegraph

Minister suggests criticism of smear test rollout is ‘politically motivated’

‘It’s disappointing that some people are choosing to play party politics with such an important issue in women’s health’, he said.

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

The Health Minister has suggested that criticism of a rollout of out-of-cycle smear tests is politically motivated.

It emerged last week that the former clinical director of CervicalCheck, Dr Grainne Flannelly, warned senior officials that repeat smear tests would “fundamentally undermine the screening programme” before the Health Minister Simon Harris announced the free tests in April last year.

It was stated in the Dail chamber that 79,500 women are currently waiting for results after a backlog was created by the increase of tests.

It has also been reported that Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan was in favour of a more restricted form of free tests.

When asked about the reports, Mr Harris said that both he and Dr Holohan worked closely when making the decision.

“The facts show that myself and Dr Holohan worked together to make sure that women could have reassurance in relation to repeat smears,” he said.

“I think the idea to reduce the decision to one of one tweet is extraordinarily dismissive of the legitimate concerns women had.

“It’s very easy now, a year on, for everyone to be wise in hindsight, but this was a very frightening time where we couldn’t provide reassurance to women about this, and they were already making their own health care decisions to go to their GP.

“Were we going to add insult to injury to the debacle of CervicalCheck and tell women they had to pay?

“My Secretary General, and the Director General of the HSE both told the health committee that I never received any contrary advice, and my decision was consistent with the Chief Medical Officer’s advice.

“It’s disappointing that some people are choosing to play party politics with such an important issue in women’s health.

“I think more than disappointing – it’s crass, it might be the time of the political cycle we’re in, but that does nothing to serve women’s health.”

Mr Harris has also been forced to defend a letter from the deputy director general and chief operations officer of the HSE last week, halting recruitment and overtime for the next three months.

Political opponents have condemned the decision as ill-judged as the HSE struggles to deal with a number of issues including trolley numbers and a recruitment and retention crisis in the nursing sector.

Mr Harris admitted that he was not aware of the letter, which was obtained by Labour’s Alan Kelly, however he says parts of the letter have been taken out of context.

“Every single year we hire many thousands of people into the Irish health service, what’s important is that hospital managers adhere to a plan and hire in appropriate areas,” he said.

“We can’t have a situation where we vote through a budget in the Dail, and we say; ‘Hire X amount of nurses, hire X amount of doctors’, and then individual health mangers go off and do their own thing anyway.

“The letter has been selectively quoted, when its read in full, it doesn’t apply to groups that have provided recruitment plans.

“It’s a message from managers, that says; ‘If you want to grow the number of people in your organisation send in your plans, and if you don’t we’ll have to scrutinise you further’.

“So I would hope now what health managers will do is use the coming days to submit robust plans.”

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