Belfast Telegraph

Varadkar: Health experts warned government officials over free smear tests

About 79,500 women are waiting for results after a backlog was created by the increase in the number of tests.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney in the Dail (PA)
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney in the Dail (PA)

Health experts warned Department of Health officials against offering free out-of-cycle smear tests hours after a public announcement was made, the Taoiseach has said.

The leader of Ireland’s main opposition party Micheal Martin questioned Leo Varadkar about advice received by the Health Minister at the time he made a decision to offer women free repeat smear tests.

The Fianna Fail leader claimed warnings from “very senior people” were sent to Simon Harris.

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 Mr Harris announced the free tests in April last year.

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Grainne Flannelly (Julien Behal/PA)

Some 79,500 women are waiting for results after a backlog was created by the increase in the number of tests, with some women waiting up to 33 weeks.

During leaders’ questions, Mr Varadkar told the Dail that advice from CervicalCheck came after the announcement was made, “albeit on the day”.

He said an email from a CervicalCheck official went to the Department of Health, adding: “It did not go to the minister himself.

“The advice from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) (Dr Tony Holohan) was reflected in the decision that was made by Minister Harris and was subsequently endorsed by government.

“I can tell the House that during the period between May 1 and December 1, when the free test was on offer, there was 112,000 consultations with GPs but only 57,800 repeat smear tests, so that proves that the CMO’s advice was followed.”

Mr Martin accused the health minister of continuously shifting his story.

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Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

“We do need a comprehensive statement from the minister. We now know there was official advice against this decision,” he added.

“We now know that an email went to the minister that day from CervicalCheck to the department. The minister subsequently said the warnings were significantly after he made the decision.

“There were warnings on the day and the day after from very senior people.

“Will you publish the email that was sent by CervicalCheck to the department on the day he made the decision?

“This has been going on for three months and has shifted and shifted and changed. Sometimes you are better putting the hands up day one and admitting this was a huge error.”

Mr Varadkar said efforts are being made to clear the backlog of tests.

“The National Screening Service have have been doing a lot of work to try and find laboratories who are willing to take on the additional testing,” he added.

“They have sourced the capacity now but they need to go out and inspect the labs and come to commercial arrangements with those labs to take on additional tests.

“It can be difficult to get laboratories to agree to take on additional testing.

“But the HSE has identified labs that may be willing to take on additional testing subject to commercial agreement and subject to liability should there be future claims.”

He added that Mr Harris will appear before the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday to answer further questions.

PA

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