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Some smear tests to be repeated due to backlog resulting in samples expiring

Simon Harris had been warned on numerous occasions that his announcement of free repeat smear tests was “dangerous” .

Image: Sam Boal

FIANNA FÁIL LEADER Micheál Martin has told the Dáil today that the delay in CervicalCheck smears is impacting the quality of test, and some have been rendered invalid. 

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions, he highlighted recent articles published in TheJournal.ie which revealed the Health Minister Simon Harris was warned his announcement of free repeat smear tests was “dangerous” and put the CervicalCheck screening programme at risk.

During the height of the CervicalCheck controversy, Harris announced that women who wished to have an additional smear test would be able to do so for free at their local GP. 

Warnings to the minister

Documents seen by this website, show that a gynaecologist located in the Mid-West region wrote a letter to the Department of Health last October which said that the Mid-West region alone has seen a “300% increase in referrals” for further examination. 

“It is impossible to meet the current demand within recommended guidelines, making the system unsafe,” the letter says, which was sent to 20 other healthcare professionals and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

The CervicalCheck Project team also wrote to the minister in October asking him to end the offer of free smear rechecks, as it was putting pressure on the healthcare system and “intensifying concern” among women.

In a note signed by Harris on 21 October, it says that smear testing levels are at around 20% above the normal volume. By that month, over 83,000 additional consultations were held, with 42,000 out-of-cycle smears, or repeat smear tests, taken.

In June last year, the Sandyford lab that examines 50% of the CervicalCheck smear tests said that the offer of free repeat smear tests was putting the smear test programme “in jeopardy”.

The offer of a free repeat smear test ended six months later, on 31 December.

Martin raised these matters with the Taoiseach, asking him when the Harris informed him of the effects of the backlog.

He said the future of the CervicalCheck programme was in “jeopardy” due to the minister offering repeat smears to all women. Martin claimed the offer of repeat smear tests were shut down in December because tests were coming back invalid due to the delays.

Tests expiring 

Leo Varadkar said that some tests have been delayed up to six months, and as a result they have expired. Those women will now have to be retested, he said. 

The Taoiseach said some women have been informed and others are to be informed shortly. 

Varadkar said the out-of-cycle smear tests were offered in May “in good faith” to reassure women who were concerned. He said there has been a significant increase in women attending, not just for the extra test, but regular tests also.

This led to significant increase in volume and ”immense pressure on lab capacity”.

The HSE has said labs are recruiting more, managing overtime and leave to address the backlog. The HSE is also seeking more labs so as to increase capacity. 

Martin said Varadkar’s reply did not address his question – as to whether Harris had informed him that the backlog meant some smear tests would become invalid. He called for Harris to appear before the Dáil and make a statement, stating that it is a matter of public interest. 

Varadkar said Harris informed him of a backlog a few weeks ago but he could not remember exactly when. He said he was sure the minister would be willing to make a Dáil statement.

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