From top: Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty; Labour leader Brendan Howlin; Tánaiste Simon Coveney
In the past 24 hours.
Several matters have emerged concerning the CervicalCheck programme.
A backlog in tests – following on from an extra 84,000 women coming forward for tests last year in the wake of the CervicalCheck scandal in April 2018, and Minster for Health Simon Harris announcing the provision of free repeat smear tests – has led to 1,000 women having to have repeat tests because the backlog caused their initial tests to expire and become invalid.
It’s now the case that women have to wait, on average, 22 weeks to get the result of a CervicalCheck smear, as opposed to the usual two to four weeks.
It’s emerged some 6,000 women will be written to next week and advised to return to their GPs for repeat smear tests.
This is in relation to a cohort of women who would have initially tested positive for low-grade abnormalities and who would have then been advised to have an additional HPV test within 30 days of the initial smear test – but their additional smear test was tested for the HPV virus beyond the 30-day limit.
[The practice of being advised to have an additional HPV test, on foot of a test showing up low-grade abnormalities, began in Ireland in 2015]
The acting Clinical Director of the HSE’s cervical screening programme Peter McKenna this morning told RTÉ One’s Morning Ireland that he’s not sure how it happened but the laboratory [Quest Laboratories] which was testing the smears “started counting the 30 days from the time the smear came into the laboratory rather than from the time the smear was taken in the smear takers’ clinic”.
Mr McKenna said that the HSE was alerted to this problem with the additional HPV tests at the “end of November”, while the scale of the problem unfolded in December and the HSE has been trying to identify the affected women since the beginning of the new year.
Quest Diagnostics is the laboratory whom the late Emma Mhic Mathúna sued.
Several TDs raised the matters in the Dáil this afternoon, with Tánaiste Simon Coveney telling the Dáil that the Minister for Health Simon Harris was told about the additional HPV testing concerns in December.
Mr Coveney told Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary that the impression Mr Calleary was giving – that the Government is trying to hide something – isn’t true.
“The HSE has said that it was made aware of this issue in November, the minister was made aware of the issue regarding secondary HPV testing in December. The issue was discussed at the CervicalCheck steering committee including with patient reps who are working very hard at that committee on a range of issues involved and outlined in published weekly reports.
“The minister sought regular updates but a final report was not available to him in terms of the numbers involved or who they were. And so when this issue was raised yesterday, I don’t believe he did have the information to be able to provide it until that was available today.”
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and Labour’s Brendan Howlin also asked Mr Coveney questions about the matter.
Mr Doherty asked for Mr Coveney to be more specific about when Mr Harris was notified of the HPV testing issue.
[Yesterday Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mr Harris was notified of the initial matter – concerning the expired smear tests – “a few weeks ago”]
Mr Doherty said:
“How come it will be February before these women will be informed that they need to go through another test – two months later?
“What did the minister do in relation to this here? How come we are so late in the day and women haven’t been informed that the information that they may have received in relation to their second test, remember the second test was a result of an abnormality in the first, may be inaccurate and was carried it outside the manufacturing’s timeframe?”
“And how can we be assured that this is the end of it, minister? That there is no more women out there that will get a letter through the door or a phonecall from their GP telling them that information that has been relayed to them in relation to life-threatening screening may be inaccurate?”
Mr Coveney responded by speaking about the challenges facing the health system, that mistakes are sometimes made and that lessons need to be learned.
In relation to the HPV testing matter specifically, Mr Coveney said:
“An issue has emerged there in relation to one of the three labs that are doing this work and we are now working to correct that and that is what we’ll continue to do.”
Mr Doherty pointed out that Mr Coveney didn’t answer any of the questions he asked and repeated them.
He also further pointed out that Mr McKenna had confirmed the HSE still doesn’t know how Quest Diagnostics made the error – despite the problem being identified in November.
Mr Coveney still didn’t answer Mr Doherty’s questions.
But he said:
“The HSE has advised that all of the evidence suggests that even though the test was done outside of the 30-day window, the original results are still very reliable. So can we please try to reassure people here there is not a cause for undue concern.
“This is about, this is about full transparency, that is what patients should be entitled to expect and it is about correcting a mistake that shouldn’t have happened and to give women a reassurance by having a repeat smear test.”
“The information that I gave earlier to this house, is that the HSE became aware of this issue in November, the minister became aware in December, had discussions in relation to it, has asked for reports in relation to it and hasn’t got a complete report yet in relation to it. And so the information that I’m giving to the House today is current.”
Mr Howlin said:
“The delay in getting the CervicalCheck is now 22 weeks according to the HSE. Where there is a problem with a check and recheck is required, that means another 22 weeks.
“For many people availing of private healthcare options, to get a faster check, but that’s not an option for everybody. It’s another example of the two-tier system. I was contacted by somebody today who said, when they were told of this inordinate delay, ‘we can get a fast one, if you pay’.”
“…How much scandal can the screening programme take? We are absolutely in favour of screening but the problems besetting CervicalCheck programme indicates that something is deeply wrong.
“These problems are further eroding confidence in screening and people are anxious.
“So, I want to ask specific questions: Can you, Tánaiste, on behalf of the Government, confirm how much additional funding was allocate last year to CervicalCheck.
“Two, will the Government commit to full staffing and funding, so that we can get CervicalCheck back on track and deliver the quality service that we all want.
“And finally, as a result of what’s gone on, now, as an emergency measure, will the Government undertake to refund the cost of private checks, which might be in the order of €100 to €200 per patient, in order to address the backlog and remove the inequality between those who can pay privately.”
In his response, Mr Coveney said:
“What we have is a new issue, that we didn’t know about. That needs to be addressed, that was raised with the minister in December… And was subsequently raised in a CervicalCheck steering committee.
“It is absolutely appropriate that patients’ reps and the steering committee would be the first to hear about this and indeed patients themselves would hear before the Dáil hears about these issues. And the minister … asked for, and was awaiting, a report in terms of the detailed numbers on this issue when it was raised yesterday and it became a political issue in the Dáil. And that is why we’ve had to respond today in the way that we have.”
Mr Howlin asked Mr Coveney if he could respond to his specific questions in writing.