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Letters to be sent to 6,000 women about repeat smear test next week

The health minister knew about the retests in December while the HSE were informed a month earlier.

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Updated Jan 24th 2019, 3:00 PM

THE HSE HAS been aware since November that thousands of women will need to have repeat smear checks, the Tánaiste has told the Dáil today.

Simon Coveney also stated that the Health Minister Simon Harris was informed in December of the issue.

Earlier this morning, the HSE revealed that up to 6,000 women are likely to be called for a repeat cervical smear test.

After being advised by an external laboratory of a problem with standard HPV tests being carried out outside the recommended timeframe, CervicalCheck has moved to contact the women affected and has established an expert clinical team to review the situation. 

Letters 

Letters will be sent to women next week, the Dáil was told today. 

A HPV test is an additional process carried out on low-grade abnormality samples.

In up to 6,000 cases the test was not carried out within 30 days of the smear being taken but was instead counted from when the smear test entered the laboratory, the HSE has confirmed. 

During Leaders’ Questions, deputy Fianna Fáil leader Dara Calleary raised the issue for a second day in the House, highlighting the information that was uncovered by TheJournal.ie through the Freedom of Information. 

On 10 January 2019, through a freedom of information request published in TheJournal.ie, we learned the chief executive officer of Sonic Healthcare, which runs Medlab Pathology and which handles 50% of samples sent in through CervicalCheck, wrote to the Minister for Health on 15 June 2018 looking for what it termed his urgent intervention to address the unprecedented number of samples.

It warned him that without immediate action it believed the future viability of the cervical screening programme would be in jeopardy. The Minister, however, did not act with any urgency about this,” said Calleary. 

He accused the government of not being transparent with information, stating that questions were asked about the delays in October 2018 during Leaders’ Questions. 

“The Tánaiste acknowledged there was a difficulty, gave words of comfort but nothing came of that in terms of extra resources or an action plan… A rushed decision, not backed up by proper resources, has us back at this point again. The minister, despite many warnings, has put his head in the sand about dealing with it,” he said. 

Coveney said he wanted to reassure women that they can still have confidence in the screening programme.

He said the issue only applies to one of the three labs that screens the smear tests, adding that there was no need for undue concern. He stated that retesting is being done as a matter of precaution. 

Addressing why the minister did not reveal the information sooner, he said Harris wanted the women to be informed first. Following calls for the health minister to answer questions in the Dail on the matter, Coveney said Harris would appear before the deputies the week after next, stating that he is currently on paternity leave following the birth of his baby girl. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this morning, Dr Peter McKenna, Clinical Director, Women and Infant’s Health Programme said that it is not yet clear how this occurred and that the main concern was identifying the women affected. 

“These women have now been identified and they will be written to in the middle of next week.”

McKenna said that, in practical terms, the chance of the original test giving an incorrect result “is very, very small if at all”. 

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

Asked whether the increased volume of smear tests, therefore, was a contributory factor to the most recent HPV test issue, the HSE’s McKenna said “it might have been a small contributory factor but equally you could say that because of it the problem came to light.”

‘At risk’

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin speaking in the Dáil yesterday said that the delay in CervicalCheck smears was impacting the quality of tests and that some have been rendered invalid as a result. 

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions, Martin highlighted recent articles published in TheJournal.ie which revealed that Health Minister Harris was warned his announcement of free repeat smear tests was “dangerous” and put the CervicalCheck screening programme at risk and claimed that the offer of repeat smear tests were shut down in December because tests were coming back invalid due to the delays.

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

Varadkar said that some women have been informed and others are to be informed shortly.

A significant amount of women taking the repeat tests as well as regular tests has led to a significant increase in volume and “immense pressure on lab capacity,” Varadkar said. 

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.  

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha and Christina Finn. 

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