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Tony Holohan criticises 'completely false' reporting about his role in CervicalCheck scandal

Holohan has released a memoir called We Need To Talk about his time as CMO.

DR TONY HOLOHAN has criticised some of the media reports of his actions in connection to the CervicalCheck scandal as “completely false and utterly at variance with the facts”.

In his new memoir published today, the State’s former Chief Medical Officer said that “from the very beginning” there was “confusion, misinformation and disinformation” in the relation to the story.

The scandal erupted following the 2018 verdict in a court case taken by the late Vicky Phelan.

When the story broke in April of that year there was confusion around what exactly had happened and some of this confusion has persisted to this day.

There has been a common belief that cancer had been missed in the examination of women’s smear tests. However, it was cell abnormalities, some of them pre-cancerous, that were acted on incorrectly.

The controversy centred on the failure to notify some women who subsequently developed cervical cancer about smear tests they’d taken previously, which could have been interpreted differently.

In his memoir, Holohan says that “no one knew until 2018″ that results of the audit were not given to the majority of women involved when the Phelan verdict prompted a review taken by himself and others.

The former CMO describes the hectic days following the Phelan verdict as health officials sought to get answers.

He describes phone and email conversations he held with then-health minister Simon Harris, in which he urged Harris not be “rash” in announcing a full investigation without first clarifying what was being looked at.

Holohan explains that, despite his urging that health officials be allowed an initial scoping, Harris was “insisting” on announcing a HSE-led investigation.

The former CMO says that he wrote to Harris to hold off an announcement so the department could “establish some preliminary facts” in order to formulate an investigation that would “stand up to scrutiny”.

“As far as I was aware, when I spoke with the minister, he had no more information than I did,” Holohan writes.

I sent the email urging him to take a little bit of time before making a media announcement, but he came back and said he was going ahead. At that, I emailed again, saying ‘I am strongly advising you not to proceed.’ But there was no stopping him.

Holohan goes on to say that the subsequent Scally report fully published in 2022 followed the model he had suggested, in that it comprised an initial assessment and an independent investigation.

“Some subsequent media reporting of my actions led to headlines saying I tried to block the Scally investigation, using my emails to the minister on the first day as evidence for this,” Holohan writes in the memoir.

That is and was completely false and utterly at variance with the facts. The reality was completely different: what I initially proposed in that email to the minister should happen is exactly what did happen.

Holohan also criticises the conduct of some elements of the media in the weeks after the CervicalCheck scandal broke, saying there were “very few voices of reason”. He describes the press as “hostile” as well as “no longer impartial” or “no longer analytical”.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Holohan’s record in relation to the CervicalCheck scandal was raised again. He said in 2021 that he has “huge regret” and “enormous sympathy” for the women affected by it and that he “of course” has sympathy for them.

In his book, Holohan says he met Vicky Phelan once and that he “was impressed at how she gave time and energy to advocate for improvement of cervical screening services in spite of the physical and psychological impact of her illness”.

He says he “came to know” the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna better and helped her on a number of occasions in dealing with medical and bureaucratic issues.

“Mostly, I was impressed with how she spoke about her children and how she wanted to ensure they could be cared for and protected as much as possible from her impending death. I could relate to that very readily,” Holohan writes.

As well as chronicling his life in the medical profession, the book, We Need to Talk, also details Holohan’s private life and the death of his wife Emer from cancer.

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