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'God forbid that a woman who got a letter might run to the media'

Tony O’Brien has criticised how some TDs conducted themselves at the Public Accounts Committee hearing yesterday.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Updated 10.50am 

THE CABINET IS set to meet today to discuss measures that will help the women affected by the ongoing CervicalCheck controversy.

Tony O’Brien stepped down as the HSE’s Director General last night amid the scandal over a failure to communicate the findings of tests to women who were diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The Cabinet is due to discuss measures that will be put in place to support the women and families affected by the controversy. Health Minister Simon Harris will also appoint an interim Director General of the HSE.

The scandal came into the public eye last month when Vicky Phelan, who has terminal cancer, settled a High Court action against the HSE and Clinical Pathology Laboratories for €2.5 million over incorrect smear test results from 2011.

O’Brien resigned hours after an appearance at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday. He has criticised TDs’ conduct at the meeting.

‘A disgrace’ 

Memos released to the committee showed that HSE management was warned in 2016 that there could be negative media coverage about the CervicalCheck audit.

A briefing note from July 2016 said “all international screening programmes will have encountered a media headline that ‘screening did not diagnose my cancer’”. It said that the CervicalCheck programme was prepared for such media coverage.

Speaking on Today with Seán O’Rourke, Vicky said the memos were “damning” but added that she “wasn’t surprised” by their tone. She said the HSE’s priority was “containment and media management” and that looking after the women involved was “an absolute afterthought”.

Vicky thanked Emma Mhic Mhathúna for speaking out about also having terminal cancer. Vicky said Emma’s interview with RTÉ Radio 1′s Morning Ireland yesterday was a “turning point in the tenability of [O'Brien's] position”.

She said both women want accountability, not money. She added that she has been in touch with Emma to give her advice about possible treatment.

Reacting to O’Brien’s resignation, Emma told TV3′s Tonight Show: “The sense of joy is incalculable. It just shows that the people of Ireland are amazing when we stand together and there’s only so much that we can take.

The government need to be reminded of who exactly that they’re supposed to be taking care of, and there’s only so much that we are going to take because if you keep pushing us we are going to push back.

“So it’s long overdue and it’s a disgrace in the end that it took me to the point where I had to break down for that to happen.”

Emma was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2016, three years after a smear test result incorrectly came back as normal. She previously underwent treatment for cervical cancer and had received the all-clear last month, but found out this week that the cancer has returned and is terminal.

‘Absolutely outrageous’  

Speaking on Morning Ireland today, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty said she was glad that Emma had found some solace in O’Brien’s resignation but said it doesn’t equate to accountability.

“This is not about Tony O’Brien … it has to be about the 209 women, and in the cases of the 17 women who’ve passed away it has to be about their families.”

Doherty said the priority now must be looking after the women who have cancer – through treatment, experimental drugs where necessary, and childcare.

The Fine Gael minister said the language used in the HSE memos released yesterday was “absolutely outrageous”.

“The only thing they cared about was protecting themselves from the potential risk of a media campaign.

God forbid that if any woman got a letter that she might run to the media, it’s disgusting.

Doherty said the inquiry into the controversy will help establish the facts. She described the situation as “a watershed moment”, saying it may lead to fundamental change in the health service – something that many people have tried and failed to do over the years.

In a statement last night, O’Brien said he has made his decision to step down to avoid any further impact to the delivery of health and social care services, “and in particular the cancer screening services that have become the focus of intense political debate in recent days”.

A HSE statement said: “Notwithstanding the clear communication failures surrounding the CervicalCheck Audits, he is confident that the Scally Review will demonstrate the quality and value of the CervicalCheck Programme once it is complete.”

In a statement, Harris thanked O’Brien for his “many years of service and dedication”.

“I know that he is standing down from his role today because he believes it is in the best interest of rebuilding public confidence in the wake of the issues which have arisen in CervicalCheck,” Harris said.

If you’re concerned about the results of your smear test, you can contact the HSE’s CervicalCheck freephone helpline:

  • From Ireland: 1800 45 45 55
  • From outside Ireland: +353 21 4217612

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Órla Ryan

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