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Simon Harris stands over his decision to offer repeat smear tests, despite being warned about delays

The Health Minister staunchly defended his decision to offer free repeat smears last year.

Image: Oireachtas TV

Updated Apr 10th 2019, 6:27 PM

MINISTER FOR HEALTH Simon Harris has told the Oireachtas Health Committee that he stands over his decision to offer repeat smear tests, but significantly regrets that women are waiting for their smear test results because of a backlog-caused delay. 

Speaking to the panel of TDs this morning on the issue of allocation of estimated spending in the health care system, Harris fielded questions in relation to the National Children’s Hospital and CervicalCheck.

Harris said that he worked “hand-in-glove” with the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan on this issue. He said that the conclusion was that “this was an appropriate thing to do, in cases where a GP believed it needed to be done”.

“There was no difference in opinion between me, my Chief Medical Officer, or my Department of Health officials,” he told the Committee.

My inbox was full of constituents asking for a repeat smear.

He said that originally, it was expected that the Scally Report was to be published in June, a month after the offer of free repeat smears was made, but due to the comprehensiveness of the report it wasn’t published until September.

I’ve 110,000 reasons that this was the right thing to do because 110,000 women visited their GPs in relation to this, but only 57,000 opted for a repeat smear test.
What women didn’t need was to be insulted by me telling them to put their hand in their pocket.

Harris said that he did not mislead the Dáil, and “took this decision for good reasons”.

I have never hidden from the fact that after the decision was made, concerns were raised. 
I’ve made mistakes in relation to CervicalCheck… this was not one of them. 

He said that whether the repeat smear was made available for free or not, women would have sought an additional free smear test anyway. He said that it was almost impossible to estimate how many women would take up the offer of a free smear test.

Letter

A letter was also supplied to the committee today which showed that the Head of Screening at the National Screening Service Charles O’Hanlon wrote to a senior official in Department of Health less than an hour after Harris offered the free repeat smear tests. 

The tests were offered by Harris on 28 April last year. 

On that same day, O’Hanlon wrote to Michael Conroy – a Principal Officer for cancer control policy – making aware the risks of Harris’ approach. 

These risks included the unknown number of people who might avail of the service; the fact that it could undermine the current programme; and the certain increase it would cause in laboratory turnaround times, among others.

O’Hanlon said the move would lead to “increased dis-satisfaction with the programme and increased anxiety for clients”.

Commenting today, Fianna Fáil’s health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said that the letter along with verbal warnings given to Harris created a picture of a government “that was ignoring the medical advice given to them”. 

“I have one simple question: “why did the Health Minister not listen to the experts when it came to the CervicalCheck scandal?” He said. 

Smear tests processed

There are just under 80,000 smear tests being processed at the moment due to a surge in uptake of the free smear test offer as part of the CervicalCheck programme; the committee was told on a previous day that two-thirds of that number were caused by the offer of a free repeat smear test made back in May 2018.

Harris said today that he expected that the backlog would be “significantly reduced” over the summer months.

In his opening statement, Harris said in relation to the National Children’s Hospital that “an additional €99m is required” for the hospital in 2019.

The government decided that €24m of this additional funding will be provided from within the €667m allocation with the balance of €75m to be met by rescheduling capital allocations in other departments.

Harris also said that he would be strengthening the board of the National Children’s Hospital, and that his understanding is that he has the legal advice to do so.

He said that he took responsibility for the National Children’s Hospital overspend, and the fact that he appointed the board, but that it should be acknowledged that the information the government were given was incorrect.

It is clear that when you look at the NCH project… but fundamentally the information we were given was wrong. 

PwC, the firm tasked with reviewing the hospital overspend, has come down on the side “that there wasn’t a waste of public money, but that incorrect estimations were given”, Harris told the committee today.

He also told the committee that he would be pushing for free GP care to be extended from under 4 year olds to under 8 year olds next year.

With reporting from Cormac Fitzgerald and Christina Finn

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