| 7.6°C Belfast

Republic's health chief resigns as cervical cancer scandal deepens


Standing down: HSE's Tony O'Brien

Standing down: HSE's Tony O'Brien

Standing down: HSE's Tony O'Brien

The director of the Republic's health service has stepped down amid a deepening controversy over wrongly interpreted cervical smear test results.

Health Service Executive (HSE) chief Tony O'Brien, who had been due to retire in the summer, had been facing calls to quit over a furore about the treatment of cancer patients who were wrongly informed their smear results were "all clear".

Health minister Simon Harris said Mr O'Brien informed him of his decision to step down in a meeting last night.

"I would like to express my thanks to Tony O'Brien for his many years of dedicated public service," he said. "I know that he is standing down from his role today because he believes it is in the best interest of rebuilding public confidence in the wake of the issues which have arisen in CervicalCheck (the Republic's national screening programme).

"Tomorrow, the Cabinet meeting will again discuss this matter and the further measures which can be put in place to care for and support the women and families affected."

Last week, it was revealed that an audit by CervicalCheck of 1,482 women diagnosed with the 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.

Mr O'Brien resigned hours after it emerged that an internal HSE briefing note that flagged potential errors in screening tests in 2016 stressed the need for a media strategy to respond to stories of women whose cancer diagnosis was missed.

The memo to HSE bosses from the Republic's National Screening Service (NSS) also advised a "pause" in the process of communicating to clinicians the findings of the audit of smear test results belonging to women who were subsequently diagnosed with cancer.

A further note, circulated four months later, acknowledged that while the "majority of cancers were detected as early as possible through cervical screening, not all cancers were prevented".

The HSE forwarded three 2016 memos to the Oireachtas's Public Accounts Committee yesterday as members probed the growing controversy around misinterpreted smear tests.

Labour's Alan Kelly branded the documents "devastating".

Belfast Telegraph