Call for probe into CervicalCheck smear test errors ‘secrecy’

The CervicalCheck scandal may involve far more than the 206 women identified by the HSE, the solicitor representing Vicky Phelan has suggested.

Calling for an investigation into an “apparently deliberate policy of not informing” women of false smear test results, Cian O’Carroll said the “wrongdoers” involved must now be identified.

He said if it is confirmed that families of women who have died from a delayed diagnosis of cancer were kept in the dark about the errors that were known, then those responsible “needed to lose their jobs”.

Health Minister Simon Harris has been unable to say how many women have since died after receiving false negative test results from the national cervical cancer screening programme, but hopes to have answers from the HSE today.

However, Ms Phelan, who was awarded €2.5m in a court settlement over a false negative smear test in 2011, said she was told that three women had died of cervical cancer after receiving misdiagnoses from CervicalCheck.

As pressure mounts on the Government, Mr Harris is expected to bring details of a redress scheme to Cabinet tomorrow and said no other woman should have to take a case similar to Ms Phelan.

He will also bring forward the terms of reference for the setting up of an international independent review group to look into why women were not told of the false results, who knew, and when medics were first told of the errors.

The group, once established, will also carry out a “root-and-branch” investigation of the CervicalCheck screening system and whether lab testing, which is currently carried out in the US, should be brought back to Ireland.

Mr Harris said “no stone will remain unturned” in relation to the issue, adding: “We are going to ensure that no woman ever finds herself in Vicky Phelan’s place again.”

The clinical director of CervicalCheck, Gráinne Flannelly, resigned over the weekend in the wake of the smear test controversy; however, opposition parties and Ms Phelan’s legal representative yesterday said that greater accountability is still needed.

Mr O’Carroll said that, given the volume of s his office has had since Ms Phelan’s case hit the headlines, the number of women who developed cervical cancer after having a misdiagnosed smear could be higher than the 206 figure provided by the HSE.

“We have been ed by a number of other women and also, perhaps even more distressingly, by husbands of women who have died,” Mr O’Carroll told RTÉ’s This Week.

“One common feature through all of those is that none of them have been ed or made aware of an audit or a review which means that either that those people we are talking to or talking about are part of the 206 cohort who have not been communicated with or they are not forming part of the 206 cohort and that 206 number is wrong and is an understatement of the true number of women and families affected.”

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said the culture of the HSE is “rotten” and called for full accountability to tackle the “secrecy and defence” in the health system.

This was echoed by Labour leader Brendan Howlin who said: “The first step to accountability is truth and I think the first victim in all of this has been truth. The basic information about the health of Vicky Phelan was withheld from her, we don’t know for how many women that same information was withheld.”

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the Government must bring to an end the “culture of concealment and harassment within the HSE” when it comes to these matters.

A HSE spokesperson said 614 people had phoned the helpline by 1.30pm.

Mr Harris said the State will cover the cost for any woman who wishes to have another smear test.