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'All talk and no action': Vicky Phelan strongly criticises Varadkar over handling of CervicalCheck scandal

Taoiseach says women of Ireland have his commitment that changes will be made to the health service.

File photo of Vicky Phelan.
File photo of Vicky Phelan.
Image: Niall Carson/PA wire

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said the “Irish public and the women of Ireland” have his commitment that lessons will be learned from the CervicalCheck scandal and changes are being made to the health service.

His comments come as Vicky Phelan strongly criticised the Taoiseach over the government’s response to the needs of cervical cancer patients since her exposing of the CervicalCheck scandal last year.

Phelan, who was speaking exactly one year on from when she was given a terminal cancer diagnosis after previously receiving a false negative smear test result, described Leo Varadkar as “all talk and no action” over the handling of the crisis.

Ms Phelan (43) was speaking Saturday night prior to been awarded the Fitzgerald Bible Bruff Award for 2018, where she also received a standing ovation from those gathered at the Thomas Fitzgerald Centre in Bruff, Co Limerick.

The award represents the legacy of former US President John F Kennedy as inspiring others to seek justice by taking responsibility for political and social action.

Previous winners who have given major contributions to Ireland are Philomena Lee, Sr Stanislavsky Kennedy and Mícheál O’Muircheartaigh.

Phelan did praise Minister for Health, Simon Harris, for his efforts to improve screening standards and provide better treatment for cervical cancer patients.

“At least you know that there is a willingness there, where there isn’t in other (government) parts,” she added, hinting at her disappointment with others at the cabinet table.

“I wouldn’t have that same confidence in the Taoiseach, put it that way. He doesn’t inspire me with confidence,” Phelan continued.

“All talk”

“I think he is very much ‘all talk’ and ‘no action’, and I just don’t get (the) sense, that he thinks this is as important as what it is really, when you consider half the population in the country are women, and every woman in this country has to have a smear,” she added.

The immediate response from the a spokesman for Varadkar said:

“The Taoiseach has the highest regard for Vicky Phelan. When they met last year he was impressed by her courage, and by her commitment to the CervicalCheck programme. Her input and advice continues to guide the Government’s response.

“The Taoiseach and Government are very much guided and act on the advice of Minister Harris when it comes to CervicalCheck as he is the line Minister dealing with it.

“The Taoiseach, like Vicky, has said he wants something good to come out of this controversy.

That means implementing the Scally Report in full and working to ensure that Cervical Cancer becomes a rare disease through the expansion of the HPV vaccine to boys, and improving screening by becoming one of the first countries in the world to bring in the new smear test.

“Both those things are going to happen this year,” the Taoiseach told reporters today.

“The Irish public and the women of Ireland have my commitment that we will make these things happen,” he said.

TheJournal.ie reported last week that the team behind the CervicalCheck project wrote to Minister Harris in October asking that he end the offer of free smear rechecks, as it was putting pressure on the healthcare system.

As well as this, the minister was warned by the company that was tasked with examining cervical smear slides that the CervicalCheck programme was “in jeopardy” in June last year.  

Vicky Phelan

On 12 January last year, Phelan was given between six and twelve months to live with no hope of a cure for her cervical cancer, having previously received a false negative smear test result.

After declining a palliative treatment plan she discovered a so-called wonderdrug Pembrolizumab (Pembro) through her own research.

Since then she has also successfully campaigned for the drug to be made available to all suffering with cervical cancer.

When asked today if all the women with cervical cancer will receive Pembro if they wish, Varadkar said it is his understanding that a a medical management programme to deal with the issue is being put in place.

However, whether a patient gets Pembro will be guided by medical practitioners, stating that it will not be the case that patients can just decide if they want the medicine. He said the medicine will have to be prescribed.

Speaking Saturday night, on the first anniversary of her terminal diagnosis, the mother of two said her tumours had shrunk by 60% which she attributes to Pembro.

Celebrating the milestone with her husband Jim, and children Amelia (12) and Darragh (7), she punched the air and said:

I’m actually after outliving my prognosis.

“Humbled” at receiving the Fitzgerald Bible Bruff Award, she added that her “wish for the new year is to improve outcomes for people with terminal illness”.

“That’s not necessarily just cancer. But, cancer, unfortunately, is the one that is killing everybody in this country. The numbers are really creeping up, we are now at one in three, it was one in four.”

Phelan said she will continue to put pressure on the government to achieve her aims in fighting for others in similar situations.

With reporting from Grainne Ní Aodha

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David Raleigh

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