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Monday 27 March 2023 Dublin: -4°C
# Controversy
Leo: 'Emma is 37 years old, roughly my age. She could be my sister or one of my friends'
A package of financial measures for the women impacted by the smear test scandal were announced after a special Cabinet meeting today. / YouTube

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR became emotional when asked about the case of Emma Mhic Mhathúna today during a press conference on the package of measures being rolled out to women impacted by the CervicalCheck scandal.

Yesterday, Emma, who has terminal cervical cancer, gave a heart wrenching interview  on RTE’s Morning Ireland.

When asked whether he had anything to say to Emma, Varadkar said:

She’s 37 years old, roughly my age, could be my sister or could be one of my friends, has young children, could be my nephews. I’m going to my nephew’s communion tomorrow. When I see them, I see those kids as well.
There’s nothing I can say that can take away that pain and anguish

Flanked by his ministerial colleagues this afternoon, the Taoiseach and Health Minister Simon Harris announced a package of supports that will be created for women and their families affected by the smear test controversy.

Briefing the media after a special Cabinet meeting today, Varadkar and Harris announced a number of measures aimed at assisting the women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy.

The Taoiseach apologised to all of the women and their families, and said the government is determined to provide answers and procure accountability.

Harris said the 209 women who received false negatives, and later went on to develop cervical cancer, will get financial assistance from the government.

The State will pay the women’s medical costs and they will get a discretionary medical card, as well as being exempt from the prescription charge. Free counselling is also to be given to the women.

The package will be individually tailored to each woman and her family.

There is no estimated budget cost at the moment, but Harris said that whatever is needed will be provided for.

The supports have to be set up from scratch, and will take a few weeks to get up and running, said the Taoiseach. He said all the families will be met individually and their individual needs and wants will need to be assessed.

The financial assistance is separate to a possible redress scheme, which the government is yet to announce the details of.

The scandal was sparked by the court settlement with terminal cancer patient Vicky Phelan. It was later revealed that Phelan, as well as other women, were included in a review audit after their diagnosis. However, 162 of these women were not informed that there case had been reviewed.

Matters escalated yesterday, following Emma Mhic Mhathúna’s interview.

A number of memos issued to the HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien about the CervicalCheck audit were also publicised at the Public Accounts Committee.

With pressure mounting on O’Brien, the HSE boss resigned from his position last night.

Health Minister Simon Harris has since said he was disgusted at what emerged from those memos yesterday.

It was also announced today that John Connaghan is to replace O’Brien as the interim head of the HSE.

According to the HSE:

John has over 30 years’ experience of both the private and public sector.  John joins the HSE from the Scottish Government as NHS Chief Operating Officer.  Since joining NHS Scotland in 2006, John has held three different Chief Executive positions with responsibility for some of the largest teaching hospitals in Scotland. He has also spent some time as interim Director General and Chief Executive of the NHS with accountable officer status for £12.5bn and 156,000 staff.

The Taoiseach said that he believed Tony O’Brien got a fair hearing before the Public Accounts Committee yesterday. Minister Harris said that O’Brien went by his own volition, and that it was clear that the Dáil was likely to instruct Harris to ask O’Brien to leave his post.

The Taoiseach and Minister Harris said that neither of them were aware of the CervicalCheck memo which was presented to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday.

“I’m really annoyed about this situation,” said Harris of the fact he wasn’t shown the memos though they went through his department.

Both men spoke of the Scally Inquiry into the situation and how they hoped it would get to as many truths as possible.

In addition, Harris said that he would ask the HSE’s serious incident management team to look into the status of the 162 women who contracted cervical cancer and whose cases were audited.

The Taoiseach said that the American labs which test the cervical smears are quality assured and there is no evidence they are substandard. However, the situation around them will be examined as part of the Scally Inquiry.

He also pointed out that in the case of Vicky Phelan, an abnormality was missed in her smear which should not have been – and that there is a difference between negligent false negatives and other false negatives.

Harris said that he “would like to live in a country where we could have labs that would provide the service in this country”. He also said that a patient safety bill is a priority of his this year.

Varadkar said that the investigations will give everyone involved due process and a fair hearing.

Both ministers were repeatedly asked about their confidence in Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan. The Health Minister said he does have confidence in Holohan.

The Cabinet were due to hold a special meeting in Monaghan today. However, due to the fallout of the smear test scandal, it was cancelled and moved back to Dublin today.

Irish Medical Organisation

Meanwhile, Dr Padraig McGarry, Chairman of the GP Committee of the Irish Medical Organisation, said that the events of the past two weeks had seriously undermined confidence in Cervical Check and could lead to reduced numbers of women presenting for testing.

Dr McGarry said that it was absolutely correct for a full review of the programme and the issues of this scandal to take place including the outsourcing issue, criteria of testing, frequency of testing and communication issues to patients.

The tragedy for the women who have gone on to develop cervical cancer cannot be underestimated and they must be offered every support possible by the State. However we have a duty as medical professionals to encourage all women to continue to attend for both routine screening appointments and to consult with their GP on any concerns they may have regarding previous smear tests.

The IMO has agreed a programme with Government for concerned women to visit their GP and if required to arrange a repeat smear test.

Dr McGarry said: “Screening is not perfect and is not a diagnostic tool but is nonetheless important in terms of the overall health of women.”

- Additional reporting Aoife Barry

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