Vicky Phelan says she's 'disheartened' that more women could be involved in smear test scandal

HSE chief Tony O’Brien said he couldn’t guarantee that cancer treatment for some women wasn’t compromised because of the controversy.

Vicky Phelan3 RTE Prime Time RTE Prime Time

Updated at 10.30pm

VICKY PHELAN HAS said that she’s “not surprised” that there may be more cases affected by the CervicalCheck controversy than previously thought.

Earlier today, Health Minister Simon Harris said that a “potentially considerable number” of cervical cancer cases could not have been subjected to a review of their smear tests.

This is because some cervical cancer cases were reported to the National Cancer Registry and not to CervicalCheck, meaning they didn’t form part of the review, Harris said.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time tonight, Vicky Phelan reacted to the latest update to a story that began with her smear test review and €2.5m court case settlement.

“I’m not surprised to be honest to learn that,” she said tonight, “because the numbers have been changing on a daily basis at this stage.”

She said that she was “disappointed and disheartened” that more women could be involved in the audit. Currently 208 smear tests have been identified as needing a different or additional action to the one that was taken. Of that number, 162 women weren’t told their cases had been reviewed.

Phelan also told Prime Time that the Taoiseach had called her this evening and requested to meet with her. She said that she wanted to focus on her treatment but agreed to it in principle and “get back to him”.

She said that she had a great concern with the memo on her case that was published today, saying that it was wrong to say that this wasn’t a ”massive public safety issue”.

“Look at what has been uncovered because of it.”

But despite the controversy, she emphasised the importance of cervical cancer screening. When asked whether she thought people should stop getting smear tests, she answered:

No absolutely not. Oh my god no. I do think the cervical screening programme – not the one we have at the moment – but I do think cervical screening is absolutely essential for women.

“I do not want to see more numbers of women developing invasive cervical cancer. It’s a horrible cancer to get in terms of the side effects for younger women in particular.

I’m lucky I have my two children but I have met women along the way who were not able to have children as a result of cervical cancer.

HSE boss Tony O’Brien also told PrimeTime that it’s possible that withholding the review of women’s smear tests may have had an impact on their cancer treatment.

“It’s possible that it did, and it would have been better that as soon as it was available that it was made available to their doctors. There could be cases where that information wouldn’t have made a difference to their treatment.”

When asked whether we can say for sure that no patients’ treatment for their cancer wasn’t affected by the smear test scandal, the director general answered: “It would be a stretch to say that at this point, that would require further analysis. I can’t say that it wasn’t [compromised].”

Harris’ Dáil statement

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Addressing the Dáil this evening, Harris said that he had “previously been advised and it had been commonly understood that the CervicalCheck clinical audit covered all cases notified by the National Cancer Registry”.

However, he said that he has “been informed this afternoon that this is not the case”.

“While CervicalCheck has audited all cases notified to it, I have been informed that a potentially considerable number of cases will not have been subjected to an audit of their screening history,” Harris said.

“These are not new cases of cancer. Nor is it a group of women wondering if they have cancer. These are women who have already been diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated as such but their cases have not been included in a clinical audit.”

Harris said that having identified this issue, the HSE Serious Incident Management Team “will take steps to identify any additional cases of cervical cancer that occurred during this time period and which were not audited”.

He said that the screening history of these additional cases will be established, “and if any of these women were screened through the CervicalCheck programme, their case will be reviewed in further detail with cytology review where necessary”.

The CervicalCheck scandal came into the public eye last week when Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer is now terminal, settled a High Court action against a US laboratory for €2.5 million over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

A plan for a Hiqa investigation into the CervicalCheck screening programme was approved by Cabinet this morning on the back of the deepening scandal.

This follows confirmation from the HSE that 17 women whose cases were reviewed as part of an audit into the scheme have died.

Last Thursday, the HSE said that since 2008, a total 1,482 cases of cervical cancer have been notified to the CervicalCheck programme.

In 442 cases, a review was warranted and of those cases, 206 cytology reviews suggested a different result that would have recommended an investigation to occur at an earlier stage.

Furthering on from this, the probe carried out by the HSE’s Serious Incident Management Team has found that, of the 208 cervical smear result cases being scrutinised, only 46 women were told about the history of their smear tests.

Harris explained this evening that he was of the understanding that the CervicalCheck figure included cases recorded by the National Cancer Registry, however, he found out today that they do not.

“This has literally come to light from the Serious Incident Management Team’s work, the team that we sent into CervicalCheck to get to the bottom of all of these issues on Friday,” Harris said.

These are women who have cancer, who know they have cancer, the State does not have an audit or a file on them that they haven’t shared with them, but because they were never passed onto Cervical Check or never with CervicalCheck, they were never subject to the clinical audit that cases like Vicky Phelan or indeed others would have been.

“They will now obviously be included in clinical audit and I know all of the relevant agencies are before the Oireachtas Health Committee tomorrow but I’m sharing all of the information I have with this House as I have it right now.”

In relation to the 208 women, Harris said it was reported to him yesterday that 162 of these women “had not been informed of the outcome of the audit process”.

“Over the past two days, we have been communicating with these women and I believe significant progress had been made,” Harris said.

“Obviously there will be a small number of cases where we might not succeed to make contact, such as where the woman may have moved abroad.”

HSE response

In a statement this evening, the HSE said that over 3 million cervical screening tests have been performed in Ireland since 2008 and over 50,000 cases of pre-cancer and cancer have been detected and treated following cervical screening.

Around 3,000 women in Ireland have been diagnosed with cervical cancer since 2008, and around half of these cases were notified to CervicalCheck, according to the HSE.

The HSE said that its Serious Incident Management Team has been “working to uncover the details of what occurred in recent days and will continue to do so as the situation evolves”.

“At this point, it is clear there has been a very serious breakdown in communicating to the women concerned that this audit was happening, and the outcomes of this audit. All those affected, who were not previously made aware of this, are now being contacted,” the statement said.


On Friday, a helpline was launched for women to ring in relation to concerns about past cervical checks.

Speaking to the Dáil this evening, Harris said that between Friday and close of business yesterday, approximately 6,000 calls were received.

“Unfortunately there were some technical issues with the telephone line but I am informed that the HSE had worked to address this,” he said.

The HSE said in its statement tonight that it is “prioritising women who were part of the audit, and ensuring their calls are answered as a priority”.

Harris also said he asked CervicalCheck to make the necessary arrangements to enable any woman who has had a CervicalCheck smear test, and whose GP considers that they should have a further test, to access such a further test without charge.

“These arrangements are currently being worked through and will be confirmed this week,” he said.

- With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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