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Harris said it was appropriate that the apology was forthcoming. Alamy Stock Photo

Harris: CervicalCheck chief’s comments ‘inappropriate, unfortunate, insensitive’

Harris said the comments ‘really hurt’ the 221+ group.

FORMER HEALTH MINISTER Simon Harris has described comments by the head of CervicalCheck claiming that some women “know in their heart and soul that they haven’t been wronged” as “inappropriate, unfortunate, insensitive”.

Dr Noirin Russell is said to have made the remarks about women making claims against the service in a recorded conversation that took place some two years ago.

She is also reported to have said that some women were using the process in hope that “they might get some money”.

Dr Russell issued an apology for comments she made during a conversation with Aontu party leader Peadar Toibin, after a recording of the call was obtained by The Sunday Times.

In April 2018, it was revealed that some women diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer were not told that their previous smear tests had been reviewed.

More crucially, the 221 women affected – or their families, in the cases of women who had since died – were not informed that the review concluded a different action could have been taken, either for another smear test, a smear at an earlier stage, or a cytology examination.

Harris, who was health minister when the controversy came to light after Limerick mother Vicky Phelan brought a case before the courts, described Dr Russell as an “excellent clinician and an excellent advocate” for women’s healthcare.

He said: “I also know the 221+ group very well and many of the women impacted by the CervicalCheck scandal very well. I would have met many of them on multiple occasions, I would have become friendly and am friends with some of them.

“I know exactly the horrifically difficult situations they went through and I think the comments did really hurt them. I think that’s important to acknowledge, I think that has been acknowledged, and I very much welcome the apology.”

The current higher education minister also said he believes Dr Russell is doing “a good job” in leading the CervicalCheck programme.

“I think it was appropriate that the apology was forthcoming,” he added.

“But I think Professor Russell is doing a good job in leading the programme, but obviously it will be important that trust and mutual respect is built and rebuilt.

“I’m sure it’d be welcomed for the 221+ group to have an opportunity now to sit down with the screening programme and to make sure that issues like this don’t occur again.

“This is all about building confidence again, confidence from women who had their confidence shattered, and I really hope that can happen.”

In a statement, Dr Russell said she accepts that her comments were “careless and hurtful”.

She said that, when the conversation took place, she had only recently taken up the role and the comments do not reflect her views now.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the 221+ group, set up for the women affected by the scandal, said: “What is reported is scarcely believable but sadly does not come as a surprise to us.

“It is consistent with what we have heard and felt over the past two years, and it’s a relief that the public can now see the attitudes behind closed doors that we have been dealing with.

“What happens now as a consequence of these revelations is a matter for others.

“Our primary purpose is the support of member needs.

“For now we have to give that work all our attention as many are being retraumatised by these comments. We will therefore not be commenting any further at this point.”

With additional reporting by Christina Finn

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